Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Identity, change, freedom and responsibility in Atsuko Hirayanagi's oddball debut -- OH, LUCY!

When the performance of Shinobu Terajima (the blond on the poster at left) in OH, LUCY! walked away with a nomination for Best Female Lead at this year's Independent Spirit Awards, this surprised a lot of us.

Once we'd seen the movie -- which opens in New York and Los Angeles this week -- we understood. (The film, written and directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi, also garnered a Best First Feature nomination.)

This is the unusual tale of a depressed and repressed middle-aged Japanese woman who, via an odd turn of events, ends up taking a course in the English language that very quickly sends the life she's been used to into a tailspin.

Ms Hirayanagi, pictured at right, has made a very strange but completely compelling movie that pulls you in from its initial scene, in which a hushed, almost sweet, suicide occurs, as a young man whispers goodbye into our heroine's ear before jumping in front of one of those Tokyo subway trains. As we find out more and more about this woman named Setsuko, who will soon be calling herself  "Lucy," it becomes increasingly clear how problemed she is.

Her English teacher, with whom she has but a single session before her life is thoroughly upended, is played by Josh Hartnett, an actor who could upend just about anything or anyone. Hatnett took a brief respite from acting a few years back, and since then his choice of roles, as well as his performances, have only grown richer and more interesting.

As an English instructor with quite an unusual teaching style, Hartnett (shown above, center, and at bottom) soon doubles as a unlikely romantic lead, the kind of guy who just can't resist sex when it is forced upon him aggressively enough. The actor gracefully goes from teacher to heart-throb to heel without missing a beat, and there are scenes here in which he seems to have regressed to an overgrown kid, losing ten years in the process.

While Hartnett helps hold some disparate pieces and places together (the movie moves from Japan to Southern California and back), the film belongs to its star and leading lady, Ms Terajima (above and below, right), who uses that blond wig to help effect a personality change that seems at once bizarre but absolutely necessary.

We meet Lucy's sis, another angry lady (played with ferocity and confusion by Kaho Minami, above, left) and her daughter, Lucy's niece, Mika (the adorable Shioli Kutsana, below, right), who is the catalyst for those English lessons and just about everything else that follows.

Oh, Lucy! goes from dark to delightful, sweet to sad without losing its footing. The workplace in Japan is not presented as anything very good, and the fact that suicide occurs or is mentioned a number times throughout doesn't say a whole lot positive about the culture or the society. Sure, America presents a kind of alternative, but this is clearly just a stopgap before real life intrudes again and must finally be faced.

From Film Movement, in English and Japanese (with English subtitles) and running 96 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, March 2, in New York City at the new Landmark 57 West and the Village East Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt. The film's director will be making personal appearances in both New York and L.A. Check theater schedules for details.

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