Setsuko smokes so much that the Japanese mania for avoiding infection via publicly worn surgical masks seems pointless.
A lonely, sullen salarywoman, she endures the almost hourly gifts of candy “for your cough” from her inane co-workers and trudges home to an “efficiency” that is absolutely nothing more than that — a place to sleep, clothes racks in the few inches of free space.
It’s a life of quiet desperation, something she at long last recognizes when a strange man leans in her ear and whispers “Good-bye,” before hurling himself in front of a commuter train. That’s barely even “news” to her fellow office drones.
“I haven’t witnessed one yet,” is all one of them can say about this depressingly routine occurrence.
It’s no wonder that she lives vicariously through her niece. Mika is a bubbly flirt, always dolled up in a Sexy French Maid for her job as waitress at The Maid Cafe, always hurting for cash. “Auntie” is a soft touch. That’s how she agrees to buy out Mika’s fee and take over the English lessons she’s get from a dicey “school” run by a would-be gangster and street-walker attired transvestite.
But that class…
The teacher is an American, who greets her with an embrace and a “You look like you need a hug.” He gives his students “American English” names, and to help put them in the frame of mind that they’re embracing not just him, but another culture, wigs. Lucy’s is blonde, and she holds that hug as if she’s just broken a 30 day fast.
“Oh Lucy!” is a slight comedy of offbeat, culture clash charms with a dark, flinty edge. It benefits from spot-on casting, testy-funny situations and cultural stereotypes that well up just below the surface, stereotypes popped almost the moment they’re exposed.
Shinobu Terajima, who starred in “Vibrator” (if you have to ask…), gives Setsuko a hard surface and broken interior life of angry resignation. There’s a reason she’s a sucker for Mika’s pleas. She and her sister, Mika’s mom, have a nasty history.
And when Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) and her English teacher John (Josh Hartnett, beguiling and bemused) run off to America, Setsuko impulsively decides to follow them. Mean Sister Ayako (veteran character actress Kaho Minabi) insists on coming, too. And that’s where the origins of their enmity come to the surface.
A mildly-hilarious plane ride, with a hapless American tourist (Megan Mullally) trapped between them and not understanding the nastiness (in Japanese, with English subtitles) they’re unloading on each other, is just the beginning.
Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi built this out of a short film she made, and it’s a production of the feminine branch of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions headed by Ferrell’s former assistant, Jessica Elbaum, and named Gloria Sanchez Productions. The emphasis is on feminine sensibilities and quirky surprises.
Some of those are cute — Setsuko’s barely-concealed lust-crush on John, John’s inability to resist the demands of these two cranky Japanese 40somethings who show up at his door in LA and demand that he take them to Mika.
And other surprises are dark, hitting you with a little ugly reality in the midst of Setsuko’s seemingly hopeless romantic fantasy.
It doesn’t all come off, but having the Gloria Sanchez banner over the film gives it Hollywood polish and pacing, even in the Japanese sequences, and helps the sibling rivalry cross the line from semi-polite bickering to catfights. The production also landed Koji Yakusho (“Shall We Dance”) as Tom, the lonely widower Setsuko meets and resists falling for in that infamous, single-session-with-hugs English class.
It’s a shame there weren’t more adorable scenes of “learning to speak American,” but that’s the low-hanging comic fruit here, a direction the short film emphasized but too predictable in Hirayanagi’s mind.
“Oh Lucy!” lets her and Terajima take a repressed cultural stereotype deep into the denial of living as if she’s in another culture, giving herself over to her dreams, pursuing the one man who shows her a world of pleasure and fulfillment she’s been missing out on with just one hug.
And Hartnett? He makes that hug feel life-changing, one for the ages, at least for this lonely salarywoman.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with sex, mild violence and cigarette smoking
Credits:Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi script by Atsuko Hirayanagi and Boris Frumin
. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:34