Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Oh Lucy!' Shares a Darkly Comic Look at Culture Clash

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Atsuko Hirayanagi's movie draws on her experiences as a high schooler in the U.S. to tell the story of a shy Japanese woman who adopts an outgoing American persona.

The shifting sands of cultural identity are the evocative subject of Oh Lucy!, Japanese filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi’s moving but blackly hilarious debut feature, premiering in Cannes Critics’ Week on May 23.

The film centers on the late-life reawakening of Setsuko (played by Shinobu Terajima), an unmarried, middle-aged Japanese woman who lives alone in a tiny apartment in Tokyo and works as a conventional “office lady” within the dreary confines of corporate Japan. Usually quiet and inward, Setsuko’s life is abruptly thrown in a new direction when she’s compelled by her niece to take an English lesson at a quirky Tokyo language center. There she meets John (Josh Hartnett), a handsome young American instructor, who, employing an unconventional pedagogy of his own devising, greets his students with big hugs, assigns them English names and gives them wigs to wear — a technique intended to jar his students out of Japanese culture’s restrained rules of social behavior.

Aflame from John’s embrace and donning a garish blond wig, Setsuko soon begins to transform as she takes on “Lucy,” her new English-language persona. When John mysteriously disappears, Setsuko/Lucy decamps for the U.S. to find out what became of him. Once in the States, her oscillations between earnest Setsuko and free-spirited Lucy result in some Coen Brothers-like moments of black comedy.

Hirayanagi, born and raised in Japan but now based in San Francisco, says she’s been thinking about the themes of Oh Lucy! since a study-abroad experience during her high school days in Los Angeles. “I was still learning English and adjusting to American high school life. I sort of felt like I had two personalities — an American self and a Japanese self — and it was a little uncomfortable,” she says. “You come to question who you are and all of the masks you wear in life.”

Hirayanagi says she was careful not to project a hierarchy upon Setsuko/Lucy’s split personality and passage through Japanese and American culture; instead, she views cultural difference as relative to geography and history. “In America, for example, expressing yourself is so important — telling people how you feel, who you are, what you like, where you come from,” she explains. “I think that’s because, historically, there were so many different races, ethnicities and regional backgrounds coming together. There was no one norm, so expressing yourself and asserting your perspective is very important.”

Pausing to concede that she “might be bullshitting,” Hirayanagi goes on: “Japan, on the other hand, is a homogenous society, where lots of people have lived on a small island. ... Many people have to live harmoniously in a small space and work together, so group values have become very important — we can have understanding without speaking explicitly.”

This story first appeared in the May 21 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.