BOTTOM LINE: A low-pitched but kooky depiction of female relations.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- A film set in a Japanese love hotel immediately conjures up images of illicit rendezvous in seedy rooms. Yet, in "ASYL," not a single sex scene takes place. In fact, men are mostly mentioned in absentia or appear in flashes in this low-pitched but kooky depiction of female relations.

Izuru Kumasaka directed his debut feature with funding from the PIA Film Festival Scholarship. The casting of famous actress Lily in the leading role may help attract some interest outside Japan's self-contained indie circle. Made with a consciousness about the stylistic preferences of foreign festivals, the film will probably travel beyond PIFF to Europe.

Frugality is one of Kumasaka's virtues as he cleverly orchestrates his drama in, around and above one building -- the Ryusui Love Hotel. The faceless urban residential location is an effective backdrop for the almost unbelievably out-of-the-ordinary situation and characters.

The most important presence in the film is Tsuyako Tamaki (Lily), a 59-year-old woman who runs the Ryusui Love Hotel by herself after her husband disappeared 20 years ago. The rooftop of her building has been renovated as a park, which she allows neighbors and passers-by to use for recreation and for chilling out.

The film's title plays with the double meaning of "asylum," which also is the double meaning of the film. Not only is the park an asylum, as in sanctuary (the regular visitors call it "the Liberated Zone"), it also is a mad house that attracts people suffering from psychological and physical maladies.

Three women of different ages and backgrounds enter her orbit. The first is Mika, a 13-year-old who's dyed her hair gray and attempts suicide because she feels left out by her dad's new family. Then there's neglected housewife Tsuki, who has been religiously counting every calorie-burning step she's made for 16 years. They reach out to each other awkwardly, but the real catalyst of change comes from Mariko, a regular customer who brings a different partner each time and collects their sperm samples. When Mariko discovers some things about Tsuyako's past, she is forced to confront what really made her keep the park and love hotel.

Something must be said for a young director who is willing to take the risk of casting an older woman in the leading role of his first feature, and then surrounding her with oddball and totally unglamorous female roles.

Those who appreciate off-kilter treatment of human interactions will like this film. Those who don't will find Tsuyako's sudden mood swings between compassion and crankiness unconvincing, and the vitriol of Marika uncalled for.

Some will find the muffled tone and unexciting pace, especially the repetitive shots of Tsuyako's lower body and her dustpan, turgid. Others may see these as the director's personal statement on a life almost marred by obsessive-compulsive self-denial.

PFF Partners (PIA Co, Tokyo Broadcasting System, Humax Cinema/Avex Entertainment/Tokyo FM/Imagica)
Director-screenwriter: Izuru Kumasaka
Producer: Mayumi Amano
Director of photography: Ryutaro Hakamata
Production designer: Takashi Matsuzuka
Music: Katan Hibiya
Editor: Shinichi Fushima
Tsuyako Tamaki: Lily
Mika: Hikari Kajiwara
Marika: Chiharu Sachi Jinno

Running time -- 111 minutes
No MPAA rating