'Oh Lucy!': Film Review | Cannes 2017
Josh Hartnett plays an English teacher in Tokyo whose unconventional methods have an unsettling effect on one of his students in Atsuko Hirayanagi's feature-length reworking of her 2014 short film.
Japanese filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi's engaging 22-minute MFA thesis short Oh Lucy! blazed a trail through prominent festivals in 2014 — Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and SXSW among them — collecting admirers and accolades at every stop. Expanding the slender piece to feature length tests the durability of this melancholy comedy, which struggles to balance its absurdist strains with a probing character study of an emotionally unfulfilled middle-aged woman tentatively emerging from her shell. But while it's uneven, and at times seems almost artless in its craft, the story has an idiosyncratic charm that pays off in an unexpectedly touching ending.
Premiering in the Cannes Critics Week, the film's profile will likely be modest, though it stands to benefit from the presence of a post-Penny Dreadful Josh Hartnett, appealing enough in an underwritten role, along with the names of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay among the executive producers. Megan Mullally also turns up in a cute cameo.
The first shot of Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), standing on a crowded train platform wearing a surgical mask, is already quite a forlorn image. But when a suicidal stranger whispers "Goodbye" in her ear before leaping into the path of the incoming train, her isolation takes on darker shades. In the sterile office where she performs her thankless data-processing duties, a clucky older colleague — quietly mocked behind her back by the bitchy juniors — serves as an all-too- clear signal to chain-smoking Setsuko of the joyless future stretching out before her.
Her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), unable to go to her dragon of a mother with her money worries, coaxes Setsuko to take her place and pick up the tab for an expensive, nonrefundable English class. So she takes a free trial, and while the school seems dodgy, the unorthodox methods of personable young teacher John (Hartnett) are a tonic to this stifled wallflower. Insisting that the key to speaking American English is to be "lazy and relaxed," he disarms his non-tactile students with hugs and high-fives, and then liberates them from their reserved nature by assigning alter egos, via wigs and non-Japanese names.
Setsuko becomes a blonde named Lucy, and while her attraction to John is clear, the class also sparks the beginnings of a gentle affinity between her and fellow student Komori (Koji Yakusho), a recently widowed man rechristened Tom. But just as Setsuko/Lucy is shaking off her funk and becoming eager to participate, John abruptly quits the class, leaving for America with the romantically entwined Mika in tow. Clues from a postcard set the suddenly more purposeful Setsuko on their trail, with her brittle sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) insisting on coming along to track down her daughter.
Director Hirayanagi and her co-writer Boris Frumin set up some playful themes, among them the collision of Japanese formality with American spontaneity, the possibility for invigorating release afforded by the mask of a new persona, and the elusive quest for love as an adventure in a strange land. But the shift from Tokyo to Southern California transforms into something of a shaggy-dog road movie that's only moderately involving, as Setsuko, the bickering Ayako and mellow John try to track down Mika, who has since split.
While Terajima strikes a nice balance between inscrutability and vulnerable need in Setsuko, all of the characters with the exception of acerbic Ayako and gentlemanly Komori could be drawn more incisively. And given that Ayako years earlier supposedly stole Setsuko's boyfriend and married the since-departed prize, the seeds of long-festering friction between the sisters point to a confrontation that never happens. Likewise Setsuko's romantic fixation with John, which leads to a clumsy seduction but fizzles thereafter, when it's revealed that he's not unencumbered.
Visually, the movie lacks style, and the music choices are at times perplexing. But for all its tonal uncertainties, the return to Tokyo puts the story back on track toward a satisfying ending with a pleasingly restrained note of sentimentality. Setsuko is jolted back to stultifying reality, effectively crushing the assertive independence she has inadvertently discovered, until Komori/Tom walks back into the bleak picture, perhaps bringing fresh promise for both of them.
Production companies: Matchgirl Pictures, Gloria Sanchez Productions, Meridian Content, in association with NHK
Cast: Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Koji Yakusho, Shioli Kutsuna, Megan Mullally, Reiko Aylesworth
Director: Atsuko Hirayanagi
Screenwriters: Atsuko Hirayanagi, Boris Frumin
Producers: Han West, Yukie Kito, Jessica Elbaum, Atsuko Hirayanagi
Executive producers: Meileen Choo, Razmig Hovaghimian, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Director of photography: Paula Huidobro
Production designers: Norifumi Ataka, Jason Hougaard
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Music: Erik Friedlander
Editor: Kate Hickey
Casting: Emily Schweber
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week)
Sales: Elle Driver, UTA