Dir: Shunji Iwai. Japan. 2001. 146 mins.

If you thought Tim Blake Nelson's O was an edgy high school movie, take a look at Shunji Iwai's latest film All About Lily Chou Chou - a harrowing portrait of contemporary teenagers in a Japanese school where casual violence, pimping, rape and murder are the expressions of a bottomless despair with existence. Running close to two-and-a-half hours, the film represents a challenging sell for distributors. But it's a risk which could pay off for arthouse specialists, because All About Lily Chou Chou is one of those visceral movie experiences which will generate terrific reviews and reams of publicity. A quietly devastating, often hauntingly beautiful portrait of troubled youth, it proves that Iwai - who achieved some international recognition with Love Letter in 1995 and April Story in 1998, is one of Japan's leading talents and boldest voices. Selection at the recent Toronto International Film Festival and this month's New York Film Festival should raise the film's profile and gather essential critical momentum outside its homeland.

Lily Chou Chou of the title is a fictional iconic pop star who offers some hope for the teen lead characters living in a small rural Japanese town. 14 year-old Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara), who is bullied horrifically by a school gang led by the vicious thug Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), is particularly devoted to Lily and manages a website devoted to her called "liliphilia". Throughout the film, typed exchanges between the fans on the site (Yuichi's moniker is "philia") appear on screen as interludes to show how the singer represents magical escape from reality for them.

Having set up Yuichi's situation, the film - somewhat jerkily - then flashes back to 1999 when Yuichi had yet to discover Lily Chou Chou. He is happy at school and embarks on a friendship with Hoshino, who was then a model student. The two become best friends and plan a trip with some others to the island of Okinawa, but there Hoshino has two brushes with death and they all witness a traffic accident - experiences which have a deep impact on them all.

Indeed, when they return to school for the following term, Hoshino has changed in appearance and behaviour. He starts by beating up the school bully, then takes his place, immediately starting to extort money from fellow students including Yuichi, who turns to petty crime to meet his ex-friend's demands. Yuichi is assigned by Hoshino to safeguard the money generated from a female classmate Shiori Tsuda (Yu Aoi) who is forced to go with older men to make money. He also becomes complicit in the brutal rape of Yoko Kuno (Ayumi Ito), a heavily teased girl on whom he has a crush.

As Hoshino's aggression becomes more intense, Yuichi has only Lily Chou Chou's upcoming concert to look forward to but it is at the concert itself that the final tragedy is waiting to happen.

Iwai's visual compositions are frequently mesmerising, setting the sordid events against gorgeous natural colours and golden sunlight. These classically composed shots are combined with handheld camerawork to create a genuinely kinetic mood reflective of the anxiety of puberty.

Although the brutality of Hoshino's actions are reminiscent of Larry Clark's teenagers in Kids or Bully, Iwai possesses both the compassion and storytelling abilities which Clark lacks.

Prod cos: Rockwell Eyes Inc
Int'l sales: Fortissimo Film Sales
Prod: Naoki Hashimoto
Scr: Shunji Iwai
Cinematography: Noboru Shinoda
Prod des: Noboru Ishida
Ed: Yoshiharu Nakagami
Mus: Takeshi Kobayashi
Main cast: Hayato Ichihara, Shugo Oshinari, Ayumi Ito, Yu Aoi