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Japanese director Takashi Miike's astonishing, one-of-a-kind Audition presents a sticky catch-22 situation: The best way to see it would be to stumble absentmindedly into the theater knowing nothing about it. On the other hand, only the most adventurous moviegoers would be grateful for not having been warned. Cranking out films at a frantic pace of three or so a year, Miike (Dead Or Alive, Ichi The Killer) is a dangerous talent whose kinetic, sadomasochistic splatter films add up to more than the sum of their bloody viscera. The neophytes who stream out of Audition in disgust will be surprised to know that it's actually more restrained than usual by Miike's standards—not exactly a meaningful distinction for a director who once showed a hooker getting drowned in a kiddie pool filled with excrement. But his restraint in the first half pays dividends in the second, when the story turns in on itself and the seething undercurrents that were once contained by social politesse explode with horrific intensity and creepy, unspeakable eroticism. Audition begins with what looks like a sick joke, something close to the fake-out openings of Brian De Palma thrillers such as Blow Out or Sisters. In a soft-focus, sentimental scene, an adorable little boy carries flowers to his dying mother's bedside, where father Ryo Ishibashi waits helplessly for the impending flatline. Cut to seven years later, and the joke is that it's not a joke, but the setup to an austere premise that owes an unlikely debt to the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, whose work often dealt with characters encouraged to marry before it's too late. Now the father of an adolescent, Ishibashi is pressured by his son (Tetsu Sawaki) to find a new wife, but he worries that he'll never find just the right person to replace the boy's mother. When he and a colleague at his video-production house hold a phony actress audition for a nonexistent project, Ishibashi is immediately drawn to Eihi Shiina, a prim, opaquely beautiful young woman with a mysterious past. There are subtle, unnerving early suggestions that things are not quite what they seem; even the mild-mannered Ishibashi behaves with some of Jimmy Stewart's obsession in Vertigo. But even with the warning signs, Audition counts as one of the great "gearshift" movies, Paul Thomas Anderson's term for a story that starts in one direction and then turns on a dime to head in another, like Sunrise, Something Wild, or Anderson's own Boogie Nights. While the film's genre classification alone (to say nothing of Miike's other work) indicates where it's heading, the shift surprises because it's not just visceral, but psychological, with feminist turns to make Catherine Breillat blush. Twisted as it undoubtedly is, Audition's biggest shock may be its thoughtfulness and deeply repressed sensitivity.