Director Atsuko Hirayanagi makes a strong feature film debut with “Oh Lucy,” a Japanese dramedy with a darker, absurdist undercurrent. Hirayanagi’s film is a tale of a middle-aged single Japanese women gaining a new view of life after signing up for a course to learn English that requires her to don a curly blonde wig and adopt a new identity as “Lucy.” Hirayanagi focuses on a type of character often overlooked and offers her unexpected second chance in life. The director also peppers her film with little absurdities alternating with some moments of bracing darkness.
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) lives a lonely life as a single middle-aged woman,whose daily routine takes her from a job as office drone to home in her cluttered cramped apartment. With her permed hair and figure-concealing clothes, she presents the picture of dowdy, Japanese style. Yet beneath her restrained demeanor and anti-social, chain-smoking surface, we sense a cynical disdain mixed with resignation, and a touchingly vulnerable soul.
One of Setsuko’s days starts off with a man on the train platform pushing past her to throw himself under the oncoming train. At the office, she does not mention the suicide and tries unsuccessfully to avoid Yoshiko (Miyoko Yamaguchi), a chattering, bubbly woman on the verge of retirement, who constantly tries to force unwanted sweets on her office mates and engages in flirtatious behavior with her admiring boss. Despite her co-workers’ enforced smiles and compliments, the other office workers laugh at Yoshiko behind her back. There are hints that Setsuko fears one of those fates await her too.
Setsuko’s day is brightened when her pretty niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) invites her to lunch. The invitation comes with an agenda, as Mika pleads with her aunt Setsuko to take her place in an English class. Mika cannot get a refund and needs the money. Setsuko has no interest in learning English but Mika pleas wear her down and Setsuko gives in and agrees to reimburse her for the cost..
The language school turns out to be a hole-in-the-wall storefront that look more like a seedy massage parlor than a place to learn English. The teacher is a happy young American named John (Josh Harnett) who has a very different approach to language instruction. John requires Setsuko to take a new name “Lucy” and don a curly blonde wig to learn “American English.” John’s technique involves relaxation, American slang and lots of hugging. The class is strange to say the least but Setsuko is surprised to find she kind of likes it.
Taking on a new identity allows Setsuko to do things as Lucy she would never ordinarily do, including becomes fascinated with the younger American teacher and befriends a fellow student given the name Tom, a widower whose real name is Komori (Koji Yakusho).
But Setsuko is shocked when she shows up for her next lesson and finds John gone. Soon Setsuko’s angry sister Ayako (Kaho Minami), Mika’s mother, turns up on Setsuko’s doorstep looking for her missing daughter and scolding Setsuko for “interfering.” Clearly, the sisters are not close yet they find themselves on a strange road trip in search of Mika and John.
Shinobu Terajima crafts a character who touches out hearts with Setsuko, even when she lashes out in anger or makes bone-headed decisions. Her painful longing speaks to her life of quiet desperation and her vulnerability has an appealing childlike quality. Director The film veers between absurdist comedy and a really dark undercurrent, as Setsuko makes one bad decision after another. Yet the film takes turns we do not see coming and resolves in a way that is both unexpected and satisfying.