Dir: Naomi Kawase. Japan. 164mins.

Prod co: Dentsu, Imagica, Suncent CinemaWorks, Tokyo Theatre. Int'l sales: Wild Bunch (Le Studio Canal Plus), tel: (33) 1 4443 9800. Prod: Takenori Sento. Scr: Kawase. DoP: Masami Inamoto. Lighting: Atsuko Suzuki. Prod des: Kyoko Heya. Mus: Kawase, Naoko Matsuoka. Main cast: Yuko Nakamura, Toshiya Nagasawa, Ken Mitsuishi, Miyako Yamaguchi.

Winner of the Fipresci Award and the Cicae Award at this year's Locarno Film Festival, Naomi Kawase's Hotaru is shot in the narratively-impressionistic, visually-poetic style that earned her a Cannes Camera d'Or for her first feature, Suzaku in 1997. Hotaru, however, has an explosiveness of emotion and a storytelling dynamism not present in her more subdued earlier work, which should earn it not only critical kudos, but audience attention as it makes its way around the festival circuit.

Nonetheless, at nearly three hours, it will be a long sit for all but the most devoted arthouse fans. Success in Japan, where Kawase is an indie celebrity, is all but assured, but producer Takenori Sento would be well advised to trim a reel for international release.

After a raging argument with her lover, an exotic dancer (Yuko Nakamura) storms out of her ramshackle house and, thoroughly depressed, absentmindedly walks into the path of an oncoming car. Among the first on the scene is a big, bronzed potter (Toshiya Nagasawa) who has inherited his father's kiln in the nearby mountains. He thinks that the woman on the street staring up him has tried to kill herself.

He invites her to a local festival, a spectacular display of outdoor votive candles, for which he has fashioned hundreds of ceramic holders. Her club, however, is raided by the police and she spends the night in jail. The frantic potter finds her and learns all. It doesn't matter - he is madly in love. The dancer reciprocates, at first hesitantly, then passionately. There is, however, more between this pair than sexual fireworks; both are wrestling with demons in their past. But the dancer, who was abandoned by her mother as a child and ran away from home a decade ago, has larger, more immediately threatening ones.

Supported by her new lover, she decides to return to her birthplace to confront her demons.

As the potter, Toshiya Nagasawa exudes the bearish masculinity and wounded sensitivity of a younger Nick Nolte. His love scenes with newcomer Yuko Nakamura smoulder, but Nakamura more than matches him in the intensity department, especially when she methodically destroys everything in her house but the kitchen sink, and only then because she can't lift it. Is it any coincidence that, when she made the film, director Kawase was in the process of divorcing producer Takenori Sento'