Dir: Masato Ishioka. Japan. 2000. 125 mins.

Prod co: Gold View. Int'l sales: Gold View (+81 3 5342 726). Prod: Kiyo Jo. Scr: Masato Ishioka. DoP: Atsuhiro Nabeshima. Ed: Toshihide Fukano. Music: Koji Endo. Sound: Hiroshi Yamagata. Main cast: Miku Matsumoto, Hideo Nakizumi, Yuka Fujimoto, Akihito Yoshie.

Scout Man is Japanese English for the men with slicked hair, deep tans and dark suits who prowl the streets of Japan's urban entertainment districts recruiting women for the porno industry. In his first feature, which premieres at this year's Venice Film Festival, Masato Ishioka probes the mysteries of the Scout Men and their world (including how they deal with hundreds of rejections daily) with a gritty realism that reflects his background as a documentary filmmaker. At the same time, he does not hype his seamy subject matter for the box office or use it as an excuse for an indulgent exercise in post-modern style.

Two young lovers come to Tokyo to escape their strict parents and boring provincial lives and enter the sex industry out of curiosity (him) and desperation (her). Apple-cheeked Mari hustles phoney party tickets to passers-by, then graduates to selling her company to randy older men, a practice known an enko, or "paid dating". The boyishly handsome Atsushi is picked up by an older porno actress looking for an afternoon of sexual healing - and ends up joining her agency as an apprentice Scout Man.

Packed with sharp observations - Ishioka spent months researching the film - and credible performances including two strong turns by veteran porno actors, Scout Man builds to a climatic scene of cold-eyed mutual betrayal that is at once chilling and stunning. After so many indie films by younger Japanese directors that have the pace and emotional punch of a tea ceremony, Ishioka's plunge into the moral black hole that is today's Japan will come as a revelation. Critical success looks assured and the film is more than likely to find an audience outside its home territory.