Dir: Hideyuki Hirayama. Japan. 2002. 119 mins.

Every once in a while a Japanese movie comes along that translates well across borders, whether as an original or a remake. Hideo Nakata's Ringu was one, Hideyuki Hirayama's Out, a black comedy about three women who chop up bodies for cash, is another, though it's more likely to fill midnight screenings than mall multiplexes.

In addition to its eye-catching (and stomach churning) premise, the film features spot-on casting, vibrant ensemble performances and virtuoso handling by director Hirayama, who understands both comedy and drama and can smoothly combine the two with entertaining results. Though the premise may be gimmicky, he uses it to not only delve deeper into the women's relationships, but to examine a society in the throes a decade-long recession. It's not a pretty sight, but Hirayama makes it an absorbing, and uncomfortably accurate, one.

Four friends - Masako (Mieko Harada), Yoshie (Mitsuko Baisho), Kuniko (Shigeru Muroi) and Yayoi (Naomi Nishida) - work together at a food packaging factory. But as monotonous as life on the assembly line may be, worse is waiting for them at home. Masako is trapped in a loveless marriage, Yoshie spends her days taking care of her bedridden mother-in-law and Kuniko is a shopaholic, hopelessly in debt to the local loan shark. Meanwhile ditzy Yayoi is eight months pregnant, but her husband beats her when he loses at gambling, a near daily occurrence. One day, she strangles the snoring brute.

In a panic she calls Masako and begs her to help hide the body. Not wanting to see Yayoi sent to jail, Masako reluctantly agrees. Yayoi stops going to work and tearfully asks Masako to dispose of the evidence, for a fee. Masako enlists a dubious Yoshie and reluctant Kuniko and, after donning plastic rain gear, goggles and surgical masks, the three women carve up the husband's corpse.

Kuniko, however, is careless with her assigned bundles. The crows arrive, followed by the police, who arrest the most likely suspect: a gangster who runs a casino where the victim ran up losses. The discovery also draws the attention of the loan shark, since Kuniko asked Yayoi to guarantee her debt in lieu of payment. He comes to the women with a business proposition: There's this body, you see...

Though absurd complications ensue, the three heroines do not dwindle into 2-dimensional characters. Instead they become adept at their unchosen task and start to discover what really matters in their lives. Even the clueless Kuniko begins to imagine an existence beyond Prada and Gucci.

Though targeted at women who fit the profile of the three principals (mature, experienced, frustrated), Out is less a revenge fantasy for over-25 females than a comic examination of human behaviour at its most extreme. They don't plunge into their gory dilemma so much as slide into it. Once they take the first fatal step, they just keep going, straight onto thin ice. It's hard not to sympathise, especially with Masako, the main protagonist, who learns why no good deed goes unpunished.

The four leads - Mieko Harada, Mitsuko Baisho, Shigeru Muroi and Naomi Nishida - are among the best actresses currently working in Japan. Relative Youngster Nishida holds her own against her elders by spending most of the film apart, in a universe of her own. Her depiction of unconquerable selfishness is both amusing and convincing - and should comfort over-forties in the audience who want to believe in the blessings of maturity. Out, however, is for anyone with a taste for the madcap and the macabre in strong and delightfully well mixed doses.

Prod co: Sundance Company.
Japan dist: 20th Century Fox
Int'l sales: Movie Television
Exec Prod: Toshio Furusawa.
Prod: Norio Kimura.
Scr: Ui-Shin Chung.
Cinematography: Kozo Shibasaki.
Ed: Akimasa Kawashima.
Music: Goro Yasukawa.
Main cast: Mieko Harada, Mitsuko Baisho, Shigeru Muroi, Naomi Nishida, Teruyuki Kagawa.