What could have been a by-the-numbers culture-clash road trip comedy is elevated by the quality of the writing and performances, especially those from Terajima and Hartnett.
© photo Courtesy of Film Movement
Oh Lucy! (2017)
Director: Koji Asuko Hirayanagi
Starring: Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Shiori Katsuna and Koji Yakusho
Screenplay: Asuko Hirayanagi
Running time: 96 minutes
When her English instructor John suddenly disappears from class, Setsuko travels halfway around the world in search of him to the outskirts of Southern California.
“The film’s deeply humane mix of pathos and hilarity marks Hirayanagi as a director whose career we look forward to following.”
The first iteration of Asuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! was a 22-minute film in 2014 starring Kaori Momoi. So well was it received, winning prizes at Cannes and Sundance, that the director remade the film as a full-length feature.
Shinobu Terajima plays Setsuko, a chain- smoking Tokyo office lady of a certain (unmarriageable) age dividing her days between a drab and hostile work environment and a cramped hoarder’s apartment. One day, shaken after seeing a train platform suicide, she allows herself to be convinced by her flighty maid-café niece Mika (Shiori Katsuna) to enroll in a sleazy yakuza-run English school. There she is required to wear a blonde wig and adopt an American alter ego named “lucy.” Her classmate Takeshi, endearingly played by Koji Yakusho, is similarly rechristened “Tom.” Setsuko’s lucy persona soon comes to provide emotional comfort and she grows increasingly attached to this new identity. At the same time she develops romantic feelings for John, her charming, but markedly odd, American teacher (Josh Hartnett). Then, quite suddenly, John returns to America, with Mika (who he has been secretly dating) in tow. Setsuko decides to track them down, out of both a sense of responsibility for Mika and her own selfish longing for John. She sets off along with her sister, Mika’s mother Ayako, played with bemused unflappability by Kaho Minami.
What follows could have been a by-the-numbers culture-clash road trip comedy but it is elevated by the quality of the writing and performances. Terajima gives a hugely sympathetic and very funny performance, by turns innocent, reckless, casually cruel and ecstatic. She expertly traces Setsuko’s slow but inevitable transformation: in early scenes in Tokyo she speaks in barely a whisper, her eyes doing most of the work. As she progresses, and she finds herself in Southern California, that voice gets louder, and she starts to shine with an awkward confidence and humour. And like a young woman growing into her new skin, she briefly flirts with a life of wild-child abandon: smoking pot, getting tattooed and engaging in that quintessential rite of American youth, the in-car make-out session.
Josh Hartnett too is a pleasant surprise, bringing a scattered tenderness to what could have easily been a gaijin golden-boy cad. He is similarly lost and, once back home and stripped of the temporary celebrity of being a foreigner in Japan, he is again a directionless young American with his own set of problems. John and lucy are an engaging pair of “losers” and their halting friendship feels completely genuine. Ultimately Setsuko realizes that “lucy” is little more than a set of props and she returns to Tokyo. But as she wanders down the bleak train platform in the final scenes we know the California sun has awakened something in Setsuko and that the bubbly lucy still percolates somewhere inside her. With independent Spirit Award nominations for Best First Feature and Best Female lead, the film’s deeply humane mix of pathos and hilarity marks Hirayanagi as a director whose career we look forward to following.
Oh Lucy! is scheduled to screen at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on April 19. jccc.on.ca