The stifling loneliness of city life is not an unexplored topic. A largely modern problem for the developed world we’re only really able to get to grips with through art and film and music, the isolated feeling of being alone in a crowd is a good narrative jumping off point precisely because everyone in the audience has likely experienced it at one point or another.
But Oh Lucy!, an independent Japanese production from debut feature writer and director Atsuko Hirayanagi, tackles the familiar subject matter better than most, combining pathos, comedy and a bunch of great performances to create something truly special and ultimately moving.
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a middle-aged office worker living a lonely life in Tokyo. When her niece Mika (Shioli Katsuna) asks her aunt to take over English classes she’s paid for, Setsuko is opened up to a whole other world. John (Josh Hartnett), her teacher, gives her the new and exciting identity of Lucy, complete with blonde wig and lazy American pronunciation, and she’s hooked. When John and Mika use the money to move to Los Angeles, feeling lost, she follows them.
Through its lead character, the film taps into a universal desire to escape from our lives when we realise we’re not what we dreamed we’d be. The film starts with a random suicide at the train platform, and we quickly realise that such incidents are so frequent that a co-worker thinks nothing of telling Setsuko “I haven’t witnessed one yet’.
Setsuko’s daily life consists of waking up alone in her tiny, cluttered apartment and going to work at an office so generic that it’s been deliberately given a more muted, grey colour palette than the rest of the film. She doesn’t speak with her uptight sister, and she doesn’t appear to have any friends. When John shows her kindness before taking it away, she understandably pursues the only thing that’s made her feel alive.
But this isn’t a love story, or if it is it’s between Setsuko and Lucy. She herself mistakes her desire to be someone else with a desire for someone she barely knows, and this disconnect manifests itself earlier in the film with a tirade of insults aimed at a co-worker that could just as well have been directed at her. Setsuko isn’t necessarily a protagonist we want to root for, but she’s always fascinating to watch.
Beginning life as a short film, Oh Lucy! comes into its own when it extends beyond that initial premise and takes us to the underwhelming sunshine of Los Angeles. While under the fluorescents of what we can only assume is a converted brothel, John was a kind and exotic gatekeeper to a more enticing world, but in his natural habitat he quickly becomes his real self – an opportunistic loser.
It’s here you realise what a genius bit of casting Hartnett is, lending his easy charm and familiarity to a global audience to a role that could have been pretty hateful in another’s hands. His motivations are left vague, but various hints at his backstory paint an unflattering picture.
Despite the somewhat heavy subject matter, the film is still a comedy at its heart. It takes a deft hand to combine the two, and Hirayanagi is helped along with an incredibly strong turn from Terajima.
Oh Lucy! isn’t a perfect film, losing its way in the third act before signing off with a simple and effective final shot, but as a character study of a deeply flawed woman, it’s almost unique. We simply don’t see these stories of older women told in Hollywood, and maybe it takes an outside voice to break through that barrier and bring us a story as absorbing and surprising as Setsuko’s.
Oh Lucy played at the Raindance Film Festival. When we have a UK release date, we’ll pass it on.