Neely Swanson

“Oh Lucy!” – Makes us oh-struck [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Shiobu Terajima as Lucy in “Oh Lucy!”. Director Atsuko Hirayanagi. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

by Neely Swanson

“Oh Lucy!” is another in what is turning out to be a trend in multi-national film-making. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi, based on her short film of the same name, and co-written with Boris Frumin, “Oh Lucy!” is a stunning feature film debut. The movie is set in the Japan of robotic career office workers stuck in repetitious daily activity where the only entertainment is ridiculing older workers behind their backs with the encouragement of the company man boss whose only apparent job is to keep the paperwork flowing. It is not a coincidence that the opening scene is our over-the-hill heroine Setsuko witnessing a suicide by commuter train, something that seems to be a daily occurrence and gives her no pause.

Setsuko, in a dead-end job, has limited resources, is isolated from her co-workers and lives in a miniscule apartment filled to the brim with the detritus of an uninteresting present and past. As we learn, she is alone and estranged from her sister; the sister who, many years before, married Setsuko’s boyfriend and is now separated from him. Setsuko’s only relationship is with her niece Mika, and Mika takes shameful advantage of her aunt, opportunistically using the rift between the sister. Mika is in need of money quickly and asks that her aunt trade her the money she paid for English lessons and then have Setsuko take the lessons herself. Mika, pouring it on, tells her aunt that she’ll really enjoy the lessons and it will get her out and about. Less than convinced but always a soft touch, she gives her niece the money, and goes to the language school for a trial lesson. And it is there, at this sketchy school administered by what can only be a pimp and his transgender prostitute, that Setsuko’s world suddenly widens.

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Josh Hartnett as John in “Oh Lucy!”. Director Atsuko Hirayanagi. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

English lessons, as taught by John, a handsome, ultra-casual California-type, are like none ever previously experienced. John’s students are given a new persona while undergoing immersion training. Handing her a platinum blonde wig to wear, Setsuko becomes Lucy, who soon learns high fives, “How you doin?”, and giving and receiving hugs—John’s a hugger. Bizarre? Yes. But Lucy comes back for more. She’s drawn to John as she hasn’t been to anyone in quite some time. She also makes the acquaintance of a man whose alter ego is named Tom. She calls Mika to tell her she will continue with the lessons; but Mika has disappeared. And at the next lesson, with the appearance of a new teacher, John is missing as well. Setsuko does the unthinkable; she goes to her estranged sister Ayako to find out where Mika has gone. Typical of their relationship, Ayako berates Setsuko, blaming her because she loaned Mika the money, money she used to fly to America. Setsuko decides to take her vacation days and chase after John and, not so coincidentally, Mika. The albatross around her neck will be Ayako who insists on coming.

Anything after this point in the story would be a spoiler because Hirayanagi weaves a tale with so many unexpected turns that it would be a shame not to experience them yourself. Suffice it to say that there is an interesting story here but primarily, this is a story about character, about the stunted Setsuko allowing herself to grow into the uninhibited and inappropriate Lucy for whom there will be consequences, not always good ones, but ones that she will learn to live with as she begins to take responsibility for her those of her actions that cause harm to others. At least she’s finally living.

The acting in what is essentially a character drama (or dramedy in this case) rises to the level it must. Shiobu Terajima (Setsuko/Lucy) is riveting, displaying a range that goes from almost catatonic to hilariously self-involved and ultimately self-aware. Kaho Minami (Ayako) really sinks her teeth into her role as the bitch antagonist, and Shioli Kutsuna (Mika) makes you realize how vulnerable Setsuko really is that she would be unable to see the opportunistic entitlement of a niece who knows just how to benefit from her aunt’s enmity with her mother.

Josh Hartnett (John) strikes just the right note of hopeful and smitten to offset who he actually is, a lost boy of infinite bad choices leaving a trail of disappointment behind him. Koji Yakusho (Tom) makes the most use of his limited screen time as a seemingly peripheral character who defines why, late in life, he must find his “inner” Tom in order to resurrect himself from past failings. Megan Mullally has a tiny, but hilarious role as the unfortunate woman seated between Setsuko and Ayako on their plane to California.

This is a wonderful small movie that defies expectations at every turn; this film is the very definition of character development and that makes it something to be seen.

In Japanese and English with subtitles.

Opening March 2 at the Landmark NuArt; March 9 at the NoHo Laemmle 7 and the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

 

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