Japan (2017) Dir. Atsuko Hirayanagi
Life is one big disappointment for some of us. We work hard, do all that expected of us, but always remain behind the eight ball, so when something comes along that might offer us glimmer of hope, it is snatched away from us as quickly as it appears. Some of us thrown in the towel, others decide to seek a different path for this journey. Oh Lucy! What have you done now?
Heavy smoking spinster Setsuko Kawashima (Shinobu Terajima) is the loner at her office job. One day her niece Mika (Shiori Kutsuna) asks Setsuko to visit her at the maid café where she works with an unusual proposition – Mika has paid for a year’s worth of English classes which is non-refundable and needing the money, she asks Setsuko to let her transfer them to her.
Setsuko takes a free trial lesson at what appears to be a brothel, immediately smitten with her American tutor John (Josh Hartnett), who gives her the English alias of Lucy. On her second lesson, Setsuko finds John has suddenly quit to return to the US, but more devastating, he and Mika are a couple! After receiving a postcard from Mika, Setsuko and her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) head off to LA to bring Mika back.
I am assuming the title Oh Lucy! is a riff on one of the many exasperated reactions from a beleaguered Desi Arnaz to whatever chaotic scrape his wife Lucille Ball has got herself into in the legendary sitcom I Love Lucy. It certainly fits in terms of how Setsuko’s life turns out and the decisions she makes, good and bad, seem to engender some kind of frustration in those around her.
This Lucy however is a victim of circumstance as much as she is a victim of herself. Her story originates from an award winning short film from Japanese-American writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi, comprising of the US section of this expanded outing. Setsuko is in many ways a familiar character – approaching middle age, alone, wondering where her life has gone whilst wishing it away, trapped in a cycle of ennui and fruitless endeavours.
At work Setsuko is the most unpopular woman, after Yoshiko (Miyoko Yamaguchi), an older colleague about to retire who gives sweets to everyone (Setsuko’s are filing up her drawer) yet is cruelly mocked behind her back, a fact a bitter Setsuko shares with her at the leaving karaoke do! This doesn’t help Setsuko’s status in the office but she doesn’t care, for she has English lessons with John to look forward to.
Dashing John ingratiates himself with Setsuko by giving her with a big hug, passing it off as a typical American gesture. Its warmth ignites a fire in Setsuko that even a curly blonde wig and a ball to put in her mouth to round her vowels can’t temper. John also has a male student, Komori (Koji Yakusho) aka Tom, and the hugging provides a nice gag for when John’s female replacement meets Tom for the first time.
The audience will have picked up immediately that John is a bit shifty, not in the least holding his lessons in a brothel, but the Japanese are trustworthy enough to take this at face value. An urgent question never answered is whether John and Mika planned for Setsuko to be the fall guy in a carefully contrived plot or if this was pure happenstance, but this reveals a something about Setsuko’s relationship with her snooty sister Ayako.
It is not until they are on a US bound plane with an American sat between them that the bickering siblings’ history is explained beyond one sister doing better than the other; in just five words, their whole saga and Mika’s betrayal is succinctly contextualised without need for endless exposition: “She steal boyfriend, and marry” spits a scorned Setsuko in broken English.
For the sake of expedience, the sisters seem to grasp English very quickly to coherent conversation level with only minor stumbles and in reading too. Similarly, the culture shock angle is abandoned, save for a cocky café waiter pretending he can’t understand Setsuko’s English. But considering what transpires in LA this is the least of their concerns and it sets John, the sisters and Mika on a difficult and tragic path.
Hirayanagi presents us with a film of tonal contrasts to encourage the audience to stay with it as if the protean moods are a portent of things to come without the predictability. In 95 minutes, it runs the gamut of emotions and styles yet never loses focus of the story or its meaning. It opens with Setsuko on a busy train platform when suddenly a man grabs her chest, whispers “goodbye” then jumps in front of the oncoming train.
Just a few scenes later, the quirky comedy seeps in and it is difficult not to be amused by Setsuko practicing English in her wig with a ball in her mouth. The US offers guilty giggles with the feuding siblings, the hubris and excruciating missteps by Setsuko and poignant drama before hitting rock bottom with an enigmatically obtuse open ending, bringing us full circle with Setsuko on a train platform.
With Hirayanagi being resident in the US, she is able to direct the American cast with a fluidity usually missing in joint productions, avoiding the inherent discrepancy in the performances. But the Japanese cast who rule this ship. Kaho Minami is great as the uptight Ayako but Shinobu Terajima is an absolute gem – adorable, funny, pig headed, delusional and pitiful, all expressed through the subtlest of gestures.
If you can’t be true to yourself then is it worth it to lie? Oh Lucy! doesn’t answer that question but it does proffer a compelling dissertation to provoke discussion and make us look at who we are to ourselves and other people. A delightful work of profound highs and lows, Hirayanagi has set herself a lofty standard with this stunning debut.