This remarkable, evocative and disturbing picture opens as if it might develop into a sentimental romance - the audition montage is a neat little series of mostly comic vignettes that lulls you into expecting charm and a happy ending - but gradually shifts into literal nightmare mode and pays off with a haunting sequence of physical and mental torture.
The serene Eihi Shiina makes an astonishing psycho, clicking "kiri kiri kiri" (Japanese for "deeper deeper deeper") as she wields acupuncture needles and a toolkit in ways many audiences will find hard to watch, but there's a real tragic weight to the hero's belief that he deserves this treatment.
It's a creepy film that slowly develops its real scariness, but it also explores the battle of the sexes in ways that may be specifically Japanese, but have a distinctly universal relevance. Add to that an innovative narrative turn that manages to both revitalise that tired old "maybe it's all a dream" gambit and pose some truly unsettling questions (What is real, what is hallucination and what is psychological just-desserts?), and the result is a cerebral assault guaranteed to linger - for an equally unsettling length of time - in the memory.
Takashi Miike, a prolific and versatile director who is a safe bet to make a big international impact, handles brilliantly the early stretches, which are light and poignant, allowing the omens to accumulate. Especially chilling is the vision of Asami hanging her head in her bare apartment, waiting for Aoyama to call, which sets up one of the most shocking frights since the punchline of Carrie.
Though intense to the point of unbearability, the transgressive climax almost comes as a relief after the slow ratcheting of tension that turns the introverted world of the hero into a hell where everything may turn and assault him. Unlike most US horror flicks, here is one that, by eschewing the easy thrill, goes for terror in a much more deep-seated form. And, as such, stays with you after the projector bulb has dimmed.