Try to picture a Japanese remake of “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” shot through with an undertow of quiet desperation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cristian Mungiu film, and you’re halfway toward grasping the strange appeal of director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s feature debut, “Oh Lucy!” Like a chocolate trifle with an arsenic core, this quirky portrait of a lonely Tokyo woman who follows her English teacher to California offers a skewed take on American indie tropes, effectively gesturing toward broad comic appeal while offering peeks at a profound darkness just beneath. Expanded from her award-winning short of the same title, “Oh Lucy!” betrays some rough edges in the transition, but Hirayanagi’s idiosyncratic touch marks her as a talent worth tracking.
Set in some of the least picturesque corners of Tokyo, “Oh Lucy!” is a character study about a character rarely seen on film: a quietly miserable, single, middle-aged Japanese wage-slave. Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a woman with few obvious qualities, and even fewer opportunities, friends, lovers, or interests. A withdrawn, chain-smoking loner in an office culture built on forced displays of camaraderie, her workday begins when she witnesses a suicide on the subway, and continues as she watches an aging employee on the verge of retirement soak up the condescending affection of her coworkers, all of whom are quick to make fun of her once she leaves the room. The subway jumper, the lonely old pensioner – it’s clear that Setsuko sees these as her two most likely options.
Her life gets an unexpected jolt after a visit from her fun-loving twentysomething niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) who badgers her into signing up for English lessons with an unconventional tutor. Working out of a seedy love hotel, John (Josh Hartnett) teaches English through a strange sort of cultural immersion. Hoping to shake his students out of their careful formality with some role-playing, he gives them each American names and outlandish wigs to wear – Setsuko is renamed Lucy and given a set of shaggy blonde curls – all the while trampling over every line of cultural propriety. “I’m a hugger,” he purrs as he goes in for a big embrace at their first lesson. At first Setsuko shrinks away in horror; later she returns the hug with somewhat alarming vigor.
Much to her surprise, Setsuko takes to the new identity with zest, feeling empowered to say and do all the things as Lucy that she’d never considered in her old, buttoned-down daily slog, and taking a liking to a widowed fellow student (Koji Yakusho). At this point, “Oh Lucy!” seems poised to develop into a typical saga of midlife liberation, but Hirayanagi gives it one important wrinkle: Setsuko’s reawakened inner teenager makes some truly poor decisions. When she finally gets the courage to speak her mind to her coworkers, for example, her barbs are tinged with such cruelty that she immediately regrets it. And when she shows up for her second English lesson only to find that secret lovers Tom and Mika have run off to America, she follows him to L.A. for a visit, taking Ayako (Kaho Minami), her Lucille Bluth-esque sister – and Mika’s disapproving mother – along.
Most of the film’s first third is taken from Hirayanagi’s 2014 short, and when Setsuko and Ayako head to California in the second, it loses its clockwork comic precision. But the shaggier back half also begins to open up in some unexpected ways. When the two sisters find John, he’s lost whatever suave magic he managed to project as a smooth-talking expat in Asia – in America, he’s just another deadbeat surfer dude, two months late on his rent in a run-down apartment complex. Mika has left him, with a motel postcard from San Diego the only clue to her whereabouts, so the unlikely threesome set off on a road trip to try to find her, with Setsuko clearly weighing a whole host of further bad decisions.
Terajima is irresistible in the lead role, shifting from painfully childlike vulnerability to rapier nastiness on a dime; in one late scene with Hartnett, she appears to age fifteen years in a matter of seconds. It helps that Hirayanagi’s loose filmmaking style gives her plenty of room to flesh out the character, sometimes lingering on the aftermath of a punchline for a few seconds too many, allowing the laughter to start to curdle into discomfort, rather than simply cutting away.
Perhaps most importantly, Hirayanagi clearly has deep affection for this character, and keeps the full bleakness of her life tucked carefully away until she’s ready to use it. When she shoots Setsuko’s tiny studio apartment, for example, she keeps the camera tightly focused on the actress, such that the weeks’ worth of piled up mail, overflowing ashtrays and unfolded clothes strewn carelessly around only vaguely register in the blurry foregrounds. Most of “Oh Lucy!” passes by breezily, and in different hands this could easily be a crowdpleasing comedy – Minami is hilarious throughout, and the film contains the strangest use of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” since “White Chicks” – but when Hirayanagi opts to plunge deeper, you realize the darkness has been there waiting all along.