A lonely woman living in Tokyo decides to take an English class where she discovers her alter ego, Lucy.
Director: Atsuko Hirayanagi
Writers: Atsuko Hirayanagi (based on the short film by), Boris Frumin
Stars: Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami
Features English Subtitles.
Optimism sneaks into “Oh Lucy!,” an against-the-odds charmer about a woman, a tragic wig and an improbable journey. It’s a near-minor miracle that just about everything works in this emphatically modest comedy-drama, which draws on squishy types and themes — the lonely eccentric, the cross-cultural clash, the revelatory trip — that can quickly sink less nimble features. The writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi isn’t selling a packaged idea about what it means to be human; she does something trickier and more honest here, merely by tracing the ordinary absurdities and agonies of one woman’s life.
She has a terrific partner in cinema with Shinobu Terajima, who plays Setsuko, our irresistibly flawed heroine. You first see Setsuko on a crowded train platform, a gray speck in a quiet sea of people, many wearing white surgical masks. She’s staring ahead as if lost in thought (or maybe simply lost), when a man brushes past her and jumps in front of the coming train. There’s a pause, the expected gasps and a discreet shot of the victim. Then Setsuko goes off to another day of work, a day like any other except that now she’s deep in a story about identity, self-annihilation and stubborn existence.
These come into play in a contrived, borderline cutesy setup that — once the parts have been snapped into place — relaxes into a pleasurable, meandering portrait of someone getting another shot, maybe the last one, at happiness. Things start clicking when Setsuko’s niece (Shioli Kutsuna) persuades her reluctant aunt to take English-language lessons with an American, John, played by a sweet, sympathetic Josh Hartnett. (The great Koji Yakusho plays another student.) John seems laughably ill-equipped for the job; his dubious pedagogical method includes fake names and hairpieces. But after giving her a curly blond wig and a lingering hug, he inadvertently transforms Setsuko into Lucy, igniting a revolution of self.
Ms. Hirayanagi sketches in Setsuko’s life with unfussy pointillist realism. An office worker with no apparent friends and few relatives, Setsuko doesn’t need a reason or even a frown to look unhappy. She doesn’t stand out in a cluttered office that’s a horror show of smiling obsequiousness and barely hidden contempt; she scarcely rates a genuine hello or a shred of interest. Soon after the story opens, she attends a retirement party for an older woman who’s being put out to pasture with an ugly bouquet and a grotesque stuffed animal. When the retiring woman starts bawling, Setsuko flashes a smile, tightly baring her teeth in what seems like an invitation for us to judge her.
It’s a small land mine of a scene — it would be easy to turn against Setsuko right then — but Ms. Hirayanagi proves distinctly adept at shifting tones. She’s also a fast worker, and she quickly navigates through the story’s trickier, more emotionally precarious moments without seeming to rush through or away from them. The woman’s weeping may be sad, at least given the circumstances, office decorum and social norms. But her galumphing howls also sound funny, too loud, faintly ridiculous, performative and self-flattering. Setsuko may be mean, but in a movie that is very much concerned with identity and the roles that we assume and reject, it’s clear that she isn’t entirely unjustified.
At first, Ms. Terajima’s subtle performance works like a roadblock to easy sympathy. With her defeated shoulders and practiced deadpan, Setsuko seems to be a passive observer, someone who has become good at watching other people live. She isn’t at all likable and it isn’t clear, at least initially, if she’s even worthy of sustained interest. When she hunkers down smoking in her tiny, uncomfortably cluttered apartment — a killing field of empty cans, miscellaneous junk and aspirational fashion goods — it looks as if she’s living in the aftermath of a disaster of her own making. A lot of actors can weep on cue, but it takes one as good as Ms. Terajima to make emptiness feel haunted.
Together with her director, Ms. Terajima fills up that emptiness with deep, then deeper waves of feeling, and escalating, freewheeling comedy. After some narrative busywork, John disappears and Setsuko — weighted down with a large suitcase and her comically, aggressively angry sister (Kaho Minami) — follows him to Southern California. There, amid the sunshine and enveloping shadows, Setsuko finds and then loses herself while cutting loose and engaging in some savage psychological blood sport. She stumbles and she falls, plays at being Lucy and slips back into a radically changed Setsuko in a movie in which the human comedy is by turns tender, plaintive, heartfelt and joyful.
-Manohla Dargis, NY TIMES