2018, NR, 96 min. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi. Starring Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Shioli Kutsuna, Megan Mullally, Koji Yakusho, Reiko Aylesworth.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 20, 2018
Japanese character actress Shinobu Terajima is probably best known to Western audiences as the abused war bride in Kōji Wakamatsu's disturbing Caterpillar, and she has never been afraid of the physical and spiritual exposure of truly great transgressive cinema. With Oh Lucy! she retains the kind of emotional vulnerability that the most affecting of exploitation can achieve, but for a more saddening, if oddly humorous end.
As office worker Setsuko, she's trapped in a gray tedium, a blandness only fractured when a random stranger shares a moment with her before throwing himself in front of a train. It's a fleeting nothing that sends her delicately off-kilter, in the way of a spinning top, its trajectory growing ever wider and wilder. None of this is helped by her niece Mika (Kutsuna, Deadpool 2), a maid cafe hostess who convinces her to take English lessons from a guy called Joe (Hartnett). Nothing about this seems legit, especially since Joe barely speaks Japanese, has no seeming clue about language instruction, and the classroom seems to be a yakuza-run massage parlor. He's so bad at his job that his method of instruction is to put a wig on Setsuko and call her Lucy. It's no surprise that Mika and Joe run away to the U.S., but that the increasingly erratic and self-possessed Setsuko follows them undoubtedly is.
Terajima injects Setsuko with the spiky, surly, brittle nature of a teen, as she drags her sister (Minami) off to California in hunt of Mika, Joe, and the 600,000 yen that has disappeared with them. Their arrival transitions into a quirky, heartfelt road trip, a Lost in Translation in reverse, with first-time writer/director Hirayanagi making Setsuko the wringer through which the hapless and worthless Joe is put. She's not afraid to make her protagonist more than a little unlikable: When Sally Field trod a similar path of later-life reinvention in Hello, My Name Is Doris, she made her character merely misguided, but Terajima and Hirayanagi layer Setsuko with a spitefulness that makes her isolated self-destruction and self-delusion as shocking as it is poignant.
Not every aspect is as exquisitely structured as Terajima's bittersweet performance. An underlying subtext about reinvention never truly develops, and the idea of Lucy as Setsuko's alter ego stutters. But her performance, especially when matched by Minami's hard-sighing world-weariness, is nothing less than transfixing.