The 25th Raindance Film Festival is coming to London from Wednesday 20 September to Sunday 1 October – and one of the Japanese films getting its UK premiere is Oh Lucy!, directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi.
Middle-aged Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is seemingly stuck in an endless routine in Tokyo – working in an office with people she can’t stand and returning home alone each night to her poky over-crowded flat. But things start to change when her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), persuades her to attend her English language classes in her place (and paying a sizeable amount for the favour). There, she meets her American instructor John (Josh Hartnett) who requires her to wear a blonde wig and take on a new American name ‘Lucy’. This new identity awakens something dormant in Setsuko and she quickly falls for John (to be fair, who wouldn’t?)
I was expecting Oh Lucy! to be a fairly straight-forward comedy but it completely takes you by surprise – within 20 minutes the plot takes a turn and, towards the end of the film, you’ll likely be feeling desolated and dismayed. Without giving away too much about where the story takes us, John isn’t Setsuko’s teacher for long and soon she and her no-nonsense sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), head for America to find him.
Oh Lucy! is an emotional whirlwind of a film, jumping from hilarious to shocking to pitiable to uplifting. It’s an entertaining watch all the way through and you will be hooked. Setsuko (aka Lucy) is an enigma; unhealthily obsessed with a man half her age for whom she has crossed an ocean to see, and yet incredibly pitiful for the lonely life she has led so far and difficult relationships she has with her sister and niece. As the film progresses, her sanity and moral compass deteriorate as we begin to see a very different woman to the one we started with. But when happiness and excitement appear to have never graced your life, you have a lot of sympathy for Setsuko in spite of her actions.
Setsuko isn’t the only character who is morally ambiguous. In fact, almost everyone falls into the morally grey area and has both their faults – some of them more serious than others. In Tokyo, John is the charming, smiling foreigner who no doubt captures the heart of a lot of the Japanese women walking into his classroom. But in America, he is behind on his rent, spends the day in his pants and has let down people close to him. We first meet Mika serving Setsuko is a maid cafe, casting a super-cute spell on her tea, but when we see her again much later the realities of the world have taken a toll on her. Ayako, Setsuko’s sister, develops beyond the stereotype of the disappointed mother into the person you unexpectedly end up rooting for.
The main cast is small, but my other personal favourite character is Komori (Koji Yakusho), a classmate of Setsuko who adopts the name ‘Tom’ in John’s class. While we don’t see too much of him, his determination to reach out to Setsuko when not many other people will is heart-warming and I loved him.
At a stretch, Oh Lucy! could be categorised as a tragi-comedy. It’s far more than just a story about one woman’s mid-life crisis but one of human flaws, greed, ambition and a clash of cultures. It might actually be one of my favourite films I see this year.
Oh Lucy! has two screenings at Raindance Film Festival – on Wednesday 20 September (including a Q&A with director Atsuko Hirayanagi and Josh Hartnett!) and on Wednesday 27 September. I highly recommend catching a screening if you’re in London and hope there will be a DVD release too so everyone else can enjoy it too.