California and Japan clash in Oh Lucy!

A- Comedic drama
Written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, from the short film by Boris Frumin and Atsuko Hirayanagi
Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi

In Tokyo, a middle-aged woman lives a life of quiet desperation. Then she attends a class in American English and finds herself attracted to her outgoing and handsome teacher. When the teacher suddenly and mysteriously disappears, she goes searching for him – or more likely for what she imagines him to be.

If the title and plot sound familiar, Hirayanagi first made Oh Lucy! as a short. It won the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s Short Film Jury Prize for International Fiction. It played in Bay Area theaters as part of a collection of Sundance shorts, and I gave the short a positive review.

The feature version starts out with a suicide, then it becomes a rather quirky and almost surreal comedy. But as the story deepens, the laughs fall off. The film turns into a harrowing tale about a woman suffering from severe depression, probably delusional, trying desperately to find something meaningful in her life. That early suicide scene hovers over the entire film.

Shinobu Terajima gives a nuanced and courageous performance as this troubled woman, whose life seems to revolve around her meaningless, pink-collar job and her extremely messy apartment. Like many Tokyo residents, she wears a mask to protect her lungs. She only pulls it down to eat and, more often, to smoke. When the early scenes don’t feel like a comedy, they feel like an anti-smoking commercial.

Then her niece convinces her to attend an English class, which for some unexplained reason takes place in what appears to be a brothel. She immediately falls for the teacher (Josh Hartnett), who gives her a blonde wig and an American name: Lucy. Let’s just say that his teaching methods are unique.

When the teacher and the niece disappear together, Lucy and her estranged sister (the niece’s mother) fly to Los Angeles to find the runaway young woman. At least that’s the stated plan. Lucy is more interested in finding the teacher, even if he’s not the sort of man worth flying across the ocean to find.

Among other pleasures, Oh Lucy! provides a view of America (specifically Los Angeles and San Diego), through a Japanese eye. The food is different. People are more forthright but less polite. And you need a car to get anywhere.

Oh Lucy! has its flaws. Another student Lucy befriends is a professional detective, but nothing is made of that in a story about searching for missing people. And then there’s the moment where the teacher’s car changes from one model to another. I realized the day after watching the film why that happened, but it initially felt like a very bad continuity error.

Oh Lucy! is a sad film about a woman in crisis. But it has moments of surprising humor, and even a hint of redemption. Definitely worth seeing.

One thought on “California and Japan clash in Oh Lucy!

  1. “And then there’s the moment where the teacher’s car changes from one model to another.”

    I’m not sure if I follow. When they drive to San Diego in search of Miko, it’s in a rental car. John tells the sisters that Miko took his car to San Diego. Later, Miko drives up to the motel when Lucy is on the street. Presumably she is driving John’s car.

    Finally, at the hospital, John drives away in a third car. I assumed John got back to together with his wife and is driving his wife’s car. I think the rental and the car Miko was driving were red and small sedans. The car John drives at the hospital is a larger sedan; silver Volvo if I recall.

    Am I missing something?

    There was a hint of redemption at the end but I thought it ever so tenuous. She doesn’t have a job and given her age and unlikeliness of positive references from her previous employer, she may be hard-pressed to find a new one. She is estranged from her only family. She is a hoarder which implies more serious mental health issues. She has suicidal tendencies. She seemingly has only one friend who inadvertently interrupted her suicide. He is a sad sack who feels responsible for his son’s suicide.

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