I usually think of directors Hideo Nakata (Ringu) and Takashi Miike (Audition) as the biggest players in Japan's early dominance of the Asian horror revival that started in the 1990s, with Takashi Shimizu (Ju-on) and maybe Shion Sono (Suicide Club) as their main peers, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa seems to have been just as significant and prolific during that same era and, for whatever reason, I wasn't at all familiar with his output (with the exception of the U.S. remake of his 2001 "evil internet" thriller Pulse). His breakthrough movie, 1997's Cure, seemed like a good place to start, and it's a more-than-decent companion to Audition, similar both in style, effective atmosphere, and a third act that meant nothing to me.
When a series of random strangers commit murders that feature unmistakable similarities, police detective Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho) discovers a common link in the form of an amnesic drifter (Masato Hagiwara) who seems to trigger violent hypnotic states in everyone with whom he interacts. Like Miike's Audition, Cure has a wonderfully deliberate, quiet-but-throbbing intensity, with the help of patient direction, subtle performances and a fantastic low-register sound design. the first hour is incredibly compelling, as the unassuming Hagiwara calmly spreads his unique form of terror in a series of brilliantly composed scenes that slowly build with deep menace.
Where Cure fell apart for me was around the hour mark, as Kurosawa seemed unsure of how to get from his excellent set-up to his wonderfully effective final scene. Everything in between is either silly, incoherent or so intentionally elliptical that it has no meaning. Like Miike in Audition (but not as extreme), Kurosawa tries his hand at fractured-reality in Cure's second and third acts, and there's nothing more boring to me when it's poorly done and used in place of underdeveloped narrative. When it works — like in Kim Jee-woon's amazing, exquisite 2003 A Tale of Two Sisters — it can be gripping, but when Cure goes that route, it falls apart. Although the epilog at the very end is chilling, the main story ends weakly with too many question marks about what happened and why, neutering an otherwise potent effort.