By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Expanding upon her 2017 TV movie of the same name, writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi has crafted a bittersweet feature film that slyly plays with the conventions of both the romantic comedy and self-enlightenment genres. Hirayanagi introduces us to Setsuko Kawashima (the superb Shinobu Terajima) during a startling opening scene, before showing us the life she is currently leading. A low-level employee at a Tokyo office, Kawashima is clearly unhappy, keeping a sometimes condescending distance from her fellow colleagues. A social recluse who holes up in her small, dishevelled flat, Kawashima receives a call from her niece Mika (Shiori Kutsuna), who wants her to fill in for her at the English language classes she has just paid for, and although reluctant, agrees to do so.
Turning up to the karaoke-style building, which looks like it may be run by yakuza members, Kawashima makes her way to the room where the English class is being conducted, and meets her instructor John (Josh Hartnett), who seems to have an unconventional way of teaching his students. The only other person there is Takeshi Komori (Koji Yakusho), who has been given the English name Tom by John. Kawashima is named Lucy, but is somewhat taken aback by John’s open way of teaching. Komori/Tom appears to take a liking to Kawashima, who is thinking more about John and his eccentric behaviour.
When she decides to attend the second class, Kawashima discovers that John, along with Mika, have disappeared, and have in fact gone to the U.S. as a couple. Informing her judgmental older sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) who is Mika’s mother, the two decide to fly to Los Angeles, Ayako wanting to know what her daughter is doing, while Kawashima starts focusing on nabbing John for herself. Decisions made will have serious ramifications on all involved. Hirayanagi maintains a fine line with the character of Kawashima, developing her as a lonely, hard-shelled person who, like so many people in the world, are secretly crying out for a true connection with someone, but have little idea how to achieve it.
It’s a role that could easily have fallen into cliché or stereotype, but Hirayanagi displays an affection and understanding towards Kawashima, studying not only her personal flaws, but also the cold, unforgiving societal structure she has to exist in. What could have been merely a light-hearted fish-out-of-water story or a sweet journey of self-discovery turns into something much more interesting and unsettling. Hirayanagi has at the centre of her film the supremely talented Terajima (Vibrator, It’s Only Talk, Dear Etranger), who is simply magnificent as Kawashima, and the material may not have succeeded as much as it does if it weren’t for her. With a character that is at-times off-putting, Terajima ensures our investment in Kawashima never wavers or weakens.
Iconic actor Yakusho (Tampopo, Shall We Dance?, Cure, The World of Kanako) shines in what is a supporting role, adding nuance to a part that could have easily been considered unimportant. Hartnett (Sin City, Lucky Number Slevin) is surprisingly good as the rather unreliable John, and works well opposite his Asian cast members (as he did in Anh Hung Tran’s unfairly maligned I Come with the Rain); Australian-born Kutsuna (Petal Dance, and the excellent remake of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) impresses as Mika, while Minami rounds off a strong ensemble as Ayako. Oh Lucy! wavers between the delightful and the disturbing, but importantly never forgets the people and the journey they are taking. Hirayanagi, a definite talent to watch, is able to bring this tale to a satisfying and moving conclusion.