The office worker is Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), who tries to minimize her presence in a drab office doing some undefined computer work. She receives a call from her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), asking to meet for lunch, where Mika pitches her a deal: she can't afford to keep taking English classes next door, and she can't get a refund, so maybe Setsuko can take the class in her stead and pay Mika the 500,000 yen enrollment fee. Setsuko is skeptical, but changes her mind when she meets John (Josh Hartnett), a man who gives off a warm presence, loves hugs, and slaps a blonde curly wig onto Setsuko and insists she go by "Lucy" in his classroom.
Hirayanagi's portrait of Setsuko's job and the routes she takes to get to it are drab and gray, filled with straight lines and crowds of anonymous people who are simultaneously invading each other's personal space but distinctly isolated from one another -- after a man kills himself jumping in front of the subway in front of Setsuko, a co-worker laments that she hasn't seen a jumper yet rather that inquiring about his identity. It's no surprise that the surreal and oddly colorful world of John's class, in the basement of what looks like a renovated brothel outfitted with neon lights, makes Setsuko feel alive, especially when John leans in for one of his traditional hugs. Unfortunately for Setsuko, the 500,000 yen is John and Mika's cue to return to America, leaving Setsuko alone with an equally lonely classmate, Takeshi/"Ted" (Koji Yakusho), an underwhelming new teacher, and Setsuko's irritated sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), who is angry that Setsuko let Mika rope her in.
When Mika sends a postcard that features her new address, both of them fly to California to find her, only to find John, alone, with another postcard to follow. Slowly, Hirayanagi and co-writer Boris Frumin unpack Setsuko's long-standing frustrations with Ayako, while Setsuko gets close to John. Hartnett has always been charming, and he's a perfect fit for John, who may not have a malicious bone in his body, but clearly has a knack for getting himself into serious trouble. Minami is also extremely impressive as Ayako, who uses her angry, bossy personality to hide a web of tangled emotions toward her daughter and her sister -- when the veneer cracks, the vulnerability Minami projects is intense.
However, the film belongs to Terajima, whose performance will hopefully be remembered among the year's best. Like Ayako, she bottles her feelings up, but tends to project her frustrations in a passive-aggressive way. The way she opens up and lets those emotions take her over around John is like the difference between Hirayanagi's gray Japan and the airy, sunny Los Angeles, where colors are vivid and the sky is always bright. Terajima's performance is frequently small, internal, precise, resisting the big outbursts that would normally punctuate this kind of movie. She provides the foundation on which Hirayanagi builds the film's uniquely compelling tone. There is a tendency for this sort of film to fall into two categories: one where the viewer expects some sort of emotional (as in the character, not the viewer) triumph, or one where the film exists to comment on a character that some would call unlikable. Oh Lucy! is neither, seeking to create a full portrait of Setsuko's loneliness. The film's landing is a bit shaky, but ultimately quite moving: where some movies would feel the need for her melancholy to be resolved, Hirayanagi understands that it's enough for her to have it reflected back at her, and understood.
The Video and Audio
The big disappointment here is the absence of the short film Oh Lucy!, which Hirayanagi says in her interview is much different than the feature film, even if the concept is the same. Given Film Movement's DVDs always make a point of including a short as a supplement, it feels like a real obvious omission, although it's also easy to believe that some sort of rights issue prevented it from being included.
Trailers for After the Storm, Hana-Bi, Harmonium, Antonia's Line, Full Moon in Paris, and In Between are available under the special features menu. An original theatrical trailer for Oh Lucy! is also included.