Thursday, June 14, 2018

Movie Review: Oh Lucy

Oh Lucy *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Atsuko Hirayanagi.
Written by: Atsuko Hirayanagi & Boris Frumin based on the short film by Atsuko Hirayanagi.
Starring: Shinobu Terajima (Setsuko Kawashima / Lucy), Josh Hartnett (John), Kaho Minami (Ayako), Kôji Yakusho (Takeshi Komori / Tom), Shioli Kutsuna (Mika Ogawa), Megan Mullally (Hannah), Reiko Aylesworth (Kei).
Oh Lucy is an odd movie. When it begins, you think you know where it is going to go, and then it keeps going off in a somewhat different direction. On a plot level, the film doesn’t have too many surprises in it, but in terms of being a character study of the type of character we do not see very often, the film offered quite a few surprises. I’m not sure it all works – that it all holds together – but it’s an odd, funny, sad film that keep you engaged and entertained.
The film opens in Japan, where Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a typical office drone – working in an open office bureaucracy, doing god knows what. She isn’t happy, of course (no one who works in an office is ever allowed to be happy in movies – people like me are always miserable in their jobs of course). She gets a call from her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) who has ulterior motives for calling her Aunt. She signed up for English lessons – but can know no longer go. She cannot get a refund, so would like to know if her Aunt would like to take these lessons – and, of course, pay her niece all the money she otherwise would have lost. She agrees – and ends up meeting the teacher, John (Josh Harnett) – who doesn’t seem to know what the hell he is doing. He puts Setsuko – and the only other student, Komori (the great Koji Yakusho) – in wigs, calls them by American names – Lucy and Tom – and teaches them to act casually, and hug a lot. The real plot of the movie starts when John ends up leaving Japan – with Mika – to go back to California. Setsuko and her sister, Mika’s mother, Ayako (Kaho Minami) follow them – not quite sure where they are going. They find John easily – but not Mika – which doesn’t seem to bother Setsuko too much – she’s much more enamored with John.
That’s a lot of plot in Oh Lucy – and we’re really only about a third of the way into the movie. Where it goes from there has some surprises, of course, but for the most part this is a character study of Setsuko. It’s really an understated examination of mental illness – people who function in society, but have things hidden underneath the surface. The fact that Setsuko is a pretty much a hoarder – her apartment is filled with junk – goes unremarked on. She has emotional needs that are not being fulfilled – she has never gotten over the fact that her boyfriend left her for her sister (and is Mika’s father) – although now they are divorced as well. Her sister is not a particularly nice person – every word out of her mouth is condescending to her sister. She also misreads people pretty severely – she isn’t able to see John and Mika for who they are, and puts too much emphasis on both at different times. She can be downright cruel – her interaction with a retiring co-worker is both understandable – we all have co-workers who are overly chipper that we cannot stand – but is also undeniably mean.
All of this makes Shinobu Terajima’s performance all the more impressive. We probably should dislike her from the start, and yet Shinobu’s performance shades it in nicely. We feel for her, even when she does some bad things, because to a certain extent we understand her. The rest of the performances are not up to that level because they aren’t as complex – but that’s by design. What writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi excels at is giving us a little hint of the complexity underneath the surface of these characters. Part of the point of the movie is how much we do not know about others – even those we are close to – and what is going on under the surface. The characters then are complex – we just don’t see that complexity. It’s an interesting choice, and one that yields interesting results.
I’m not quite sure that all of Oh Lucy works. It is based on a short film, expanded to feature length, and although I haven’t seen that film, I do think that perhaps a short was enough to explore what they have to explore. And yet, Oh Lucy is never less than interesting and fascinating – at turns funny and sad, the film is an unromantic look at this character – the type who we normally do not see, or only see as surface level in most film. I look forward to seeing what Atsuko Hirayanagi does next – her debut is interesting and complex, and now it’s time to do something even better.

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