Showtime didn't want to air this? Cowards.
Eh, just kidding. This is one disturbing movie. It's also the best-written and most fully-realized of the Masters of Horror episodes I've seen so far. To a certain extent, this movie is Takashi Miike self-consciously making a Takashi Miike-style horror movie: there's the torture scene out of Audition, the sadomasochism of Ichi the Killer, the nightmarish family dynamics of Visitor Q. Maybe a better way to put it is that this is Miike putting together a "Greatest Hits: Horror Edition". Or even: "Takashi Miike for Beginners".
So, this is the kind of movie that makes me wary of the way the term "torture porn" gets thrown around. The movie's elaborate torture sequence is assaultive: watching it was physically uncomfortable. I don't think we're meant to enjoy seeing a sympathetic character graphically experience that kind of pain. Rather, we're shown all of the pain she feels along with the details of how it's doled out (two words: acupuncture malpractice) in order to raise the stakes.
I know that this tactic is sometimes looked down upon. The argument goes: (1) real filmmakers wouldn't need to stoop to these stunts, (2) they don't actually need to show graphic violence, and (3) in fact it's actually scarier if they don't (invoke Val Lewton and the shower scene from Psycho here).
Well, ok - the thing is that, with movies, sometimes the point is to show it - to see it. Miike knows enough about making movies that he could no doubt achieve some effectively horrific moments, solely through clever editing and the performance of his actors, without showing any actual torture or, more importantly, the graphic results of the torture.
So, why show it?
Well, honestly, I could give you a line about how Miike is (a la Cronenberg) emphasizing the physical, organic nature of our bodies and assaulting the notion of mind/body duality. But, really, Miike shows it to make you cringe, to dare you to look away, to catalog the various inventive ways human beings have come up with to hurt other human beings.
(Although I actually think the most shocking/disturbing images in the movie have nothing to do with the torture scenes).
The movie is mostly well-made. The overall structure works, the staging is effective, the set-pieces are appropriately horrific, and, with one exception, the cast does a good job. Unfortunately, that one exception is the lead. Now, I can understand why they cast Billy Drago - he has an effectively creepy presence when he's lurking around the edges of a movie as in The Untouchables or Mysterious Skin - but he can't quite pull off this central role, which requires him to go through several stages of grief, drunkenness, and insanity. I'd be happy to see Drago come back as some kind of dangerous psychopath, but it was hard to buy him as a sympathetic would-be romantic lead.
I had heard bad things about this episode, so I was pleasantly (?) surprised by how much I ended up liking it. If the lead performance were a little better, I might recommend this as a good introduction to Miike's horror stuff. But as it is, you should probably check out Audition before moving onto this one.