OH LUCY – Review
Director Atsuko Hirayanagi makes a strong feature film debut with OH LUCY, a Japanese comedy/drama with a darker, absurdist undercurrent. Hirayanagi’s film mixes absurd comedy with a very dark undercurrent, in this strange tale of a lonely middle-aged single Japanese women gaining a new view of life after signing up for a course to learn English that requires her to don a curly blonde wig and adopt a new identity as “Lucy.” Hirayanagi focuses on a type of character often overlooked and offers that character an unexpected second chance at life. The director also peppers her film with little comic absurdities, alternating with some moments of bracing darkness.
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a lonely, never-married middle-aged Japanese woman living a rather stilled life in Tokyo. Her daily routine takes her to a dull job as office drone and back home in her cluttered, cramped apartment. With her permed hair and figure-concealing clothes, she presents the very picture of dowdy, Japanese style. At work, she avoids socializing and chain-smokes, and beneath her colorless exterior, we sense something else: a cynical disdain mixed with resignation, as well as a touchingly sad, vulnerable soul.
One of Setsuko’s days starts off with a man on the commuter train platform pushing past her to throw himself under the oncoming train. At work, she says nothing about the suicide, and just dodging the office’s cloyingly sweet chatterbox Yoshiko (Miyoko Yamaguchi) and her ever-present box of candies. Setsuko is pleased to get out of the office when her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) calls and invites her to lunch. They meet at the “maid cafe” where the niece works (a nice little dry comic touch) and it turns out the niece wants a favor. She wants Aunt Setsuko to take over the English lessons she signed up for, because she now needs the money but can’t get a refund. Setsuko has no interest in learning English but she agrees to reimburse her for the cost and go anyway.
The language school turns out to be a hole-in-the-wall storefront that look more like a seedy massage parlor than a language school, a dive run by yakuza. The teacher is a talkative, friendly young American named John (Josh Harnett) who has a very different approach to language instruction. John requires his students to take an American identity, donning a wig and taking an American name. Setsuko is re-named “Lucy” and given a curly blonde wig to wear as she learns “American English.” John’s technique involves role-playing, high-fives, American slang and lots of hugging. The class is strange, to say the least, yet Setsuko is surprised to find she kind of likes it.
Taking on a new identity allows Setsuko to do things as Lucy she would never ordinarily do, such as hanging out in a karaoke bar or flirting. In class, she meets and befriends a fellow student given the name Tom, a widower whose real name is Komori (Koji Yakusho). She also becomes fascinated with her young American teacher.
When “Lucy” shows up for class again and is told John is gone, she’s shocked, even devastated. Turns out, Mika and John have run off together, and soon Setsuko’s hypercritical sister Ayako (Kaho Minami), Mika’s mother, turns up on Setsuko’s doorstep looking for her missing daughter and scolding Setsuko for “interfering.” Clearly, the sisters are not close, yet they find themselves embarking on a strange road trip in search of the runaway couple.
Shinobu Terajima crafts a character who touches our hearts with Setsuko, even when she lashes out in anger or makes bone-headed decisions. Her painful longing speaks to her life of quiet desperation and her vulnerability has an appealing almost childlike quality.
Some may expect OH LUCY to be somewhat similar to the Walter Mitty-like HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS but this character is quite different and director Hirayanagi treats her with more human kindness. What is happening to Setsuko is more a mid-life crisis, just a very weird one, and it is just that we are much more used to seeing middle-aged men into this kind story. Setsuko doesn’t just go to work one day and develop an obsession, and she isn’t delusional – well, not any more than any middle-aged man trying to be 20-years-old again. It is just that Setsuko unexpectedly steps into something that opens her eyes to the possibility of a different life, suddenly awakening to a realization she wants something else in life.
The American who appeared so smooth in Japan turns out to be quite different back home. Josh Hartnett does well with this flawed character in this culture clash comedy/drama. Shioli Kutsuna is sweet as niece Mika and Kaho Minami good as her tiger of a mother, but the star that really shines throughout is Shinobu Terajima in the lead role.
Often what happens has the kind of strange randomness of real life. There is also a fear of death behind Setsuko’s madness, a chill that begins with that opening suicide, not the usual thing for a comedy. Of course, this film is partly a drama, as Setsuko goes through a transformation and reassessment of her life. The comedy is in how this mid-life madness manifests itself – in a very bizarre, sometimes hilarious ways. The director could have just gone madcap comedy, but instead Hirayanagi keeps that grim, dark tone under the antics.
The film veers between absurdist comedy and a really dark undercurrent, as Setsuko makes one bad decision after another. The film takes twists and turns we do not see coming and yet resolves in a way that is both unexpected and satisfying.
OH LUCY is not flawless comedy, with a few moments that sag, and the bracing undercurrent of darkness occasionally may take audiences aback, Still, it is a strong first feature from director Atsuko Hirayanagi, and an excellent showcase for the considerable talent of actress Shinobu Terajima. OH LUCY, in English and Japanese with English subtitles, opens in St. Louis at the Tivoli Theater on Friday, March 16.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars