Takashi Miike’s breakthrough movie for Western audiences, this is a haunting masterclass in escalating dread that has far more to offer than the (comparatively brief) gruelling moments of torture for which it became (in)famous. It opens as a poignant tale of loss and grief as middle-aged father Ryo Ishibashi spends seven years mourning his late wife before a close friend recommends an ethically dubious means of finding a new female companion. The faux “auditions” they stage results in a union with timid, soft-spoken 24 year old Eiki Shiina, a sombre former ballet-dancer who harbours a lot of troubling secrets.
Superficially echoing the workmanlike cycle of Hollywood thrillers spawned by FATAL ATTRACTION, the film finds tenderness in the developing central relationship before we become immersed in a suffocating sense of unease. As Shiina’s misanthropy and fragile mental state become ever more apparent (“Please love me…Only me…”), the movie delivers some of the most disturbing images of 90’s horror and, of course, a startling and hallucinatory final act involving a sustained torture sequence of the kind that would become far more sensationalistic during the 21st century cycle of sadistic, post-HOSTEL American horror films. Though undoubtedly indebted to the darkest cinematic forays of David Lynch, the film has a melancholic mood and carefully controlled style all of its own, and is as bleak as anything Miike has put his name to. Even in the relatively light-hearted early stages, a key character summarises the film’s overall theme, lamenting “The whole of Japan is lonely….”
Review by Steven west