Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Atsuko Hirayanagi
Screenwriter: Atsuko Hirayanagi, Boris Frumin
Cast: Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Koji Yakusho, Shioli Kutsuna, Megan Mullally, Reiko Aylesworth
Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 1/18/18
Opens: March 2, 2018
In Japan where suicide is not looked upon as an entrance to an eternity in hell, we may wonder if occasionally the principal character in Oh Lucy! might be a candidate for oblivion. She’s a sad sack, working as a data-processor in a claustrophobic office, seeing her future in the form of an elderly spinster whose retirement party she attends. With a mean spirit, she assures the new retiree that behind her back her colleagues call her a fat pig and a waste, and her testiness will emerge later with her sister. Her home life is worse. Lucy might seem an odd name for a Japanese woman (played by Shinobu Terajima) but we find out soon enough how she got this nom de étudiante though she spent some forty years as Setsuko. The woman, a spinster in her forties with little hope of a lasting relationship with a man, certainly tries her best anyway, and in the hands of director and co-scripter Atsuko Hirayanagi in her freshman full-length feature which has been expanded from a 22-minutes thesis short, we can accept that a movie starting as absurdist comedy turns to melodrama and even tragedy.
The film will probably benefit from the casting of Josh Hartnett as John, a teacher of English in Tokyo, who has an unusual way of loosening up his Japanese students. Recognizing that Japan is a more rigid and conservative society than Los Angeles where he lives, he starts by hugging new pupils (which would probably get him bounced on the spot in today’s Me-Too America) but is tentatively accepted, even sought by his charges. That’s not all. To make students lose their Japanese self-consciousness, John fixes Lucy up with a wig, a whole new identity. Yet when the teacher, on whom she has a crush, leaves the school suddenly to return home to L.A. with Lucy’s young and pretty niece Mika (Shiloi Kutsuna) in tow, Lucy, that is Setsuko, gets a vacation and travel to the coast of continue her relationship but has to put up with her dragon of a sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) yapping behind her in search of her daughter.
The film starts with a suicide: a passenger grabs Setsuko, whispers “Goodbye,” and jumps in front of the train, a scene that may foreshadow miserable times ahead for Setsuko, her brittle sister, and even the young niece. “Oh Lucy!” thematically contrasts Japanese customs with those of the most laid-back of Americans (SoCal), the chance for a new life and a new identity, and the perpetual hunt for love that defines any society that does not keep the tradition of arranged marriage. There is a revenge motif as well: Setsuko’s sister way back stole her boyfriend, who became no more than her brother-in-law, a situation that does not help to make blood sisters sing Kumbaya to each other.
The director with the help of co-writer Boris Frumin adds a clumsy scene in a car where John and Setsumo act like two spontaneous teens, and the film concludes on a sad note showing the difficulty of romance across the Pacific when the couple know little of each other’s native language. There is not much chance for hope to bear fruit. The picture ends not with a sentimental tug but with the ambiance of a downer.
Unrated. 95 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B