As a former ESL teacher, it’s hard not to laugh at the cynical truths of Atsuko Hirayanagi’s directorial debut, Oh Lucy! Originally developed as a short, Harayanagi turned the script into a feature-length film, with Shinobu Terajima and Josh Hartnett in the lead roles. The story follows Setsuko (Terajima), a lonely woman from Tokyo who travels to Los Angeles in pursuit of her newly-developed crush on her American English teacher, John (Hartnett). Much of the film’s comedy derives from the cultural discord and misunderstandings between Setsuko and her new love.
When we first encounter Setsuko, she is a single, middle-aged office worker who lacks passion and romance in her life. She does not socialize outside of work, aside from a contentious relationship with her sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami). However, when Setsuko’s niece, Mika (Shiori Kutsuna), contacts her, Setsuko excitedly arranges a dinner together.
At the dinner, Mika informs Setsuko that she has been taking English classes, but she must quit in order to save money for her future. She asks Setsuko to buy out the rest of her course, even offering a free introductory course to entice her. Though she shows some reluctance at first, Setsuko eventually decides to attend the class.
When Setsuko arrives for the free class, her American teacher, John (Hartnett) greets her with a hug. She is taken aback by his forward gesture but is nonetheless enchanted by John’s looks and personality. John tells her that her new English name is “Lucy,” and even gives her a blonde wig to help her adopt her new American persona.
However, when Lucy returns for her second class, she discovers that John has quit and is returning to the United States. On her way out of the school, Lucy sees Mika kissing John. She soon learns from her sister that Mika is moving to the United States as well.
Lucy quickly loses her drive to study English in John’s absence. However, when Mika sends Lucy a postcard with her new Los Angeles address, Lucy decides to travel to Los Angeles in pursuit of John. Unwilling to let her go alone, Ayako accompanies her sister on her journey.
Needless to say, Lucy’s trip does not go exactly as planned. She only knows a few words of English and understands little of American culture. As a result, the trip quickly devolves into drama and chaos as Lucy attempts to win over her American crush.
The most striking aspect of Oh Lucy! is the sincerity of its characters. Lucy embodies the typical overworked, underappreciated Japanese office worker. When she encounters John, he infuses a sense of excitement and passion into her otherwise colorless life. Like many Americans who teach English overseas in Asia, John appears (to his students) like the symbol of American success. Both Mika and Lucy fawn over him, only to discover that he is not the knight in shining armor as they once thought.
Even if you ignore the humorous cultural clashes, Oh Lucy! excels at developing believable characters in relatively unbelievable circumstances. Despite her outwardly timid and unadventurous personality, Lucy drops everything in pursuit of a man she’s only just met. It sounds like the premise of an over-the-top romantic comedy, but the script’s underlying cynicism about love and relationships prevents it from falling into cliches.
Oh Lucy! is an intimate character study and black comedy but it also does an excellent job of contrasting the visual and cultural chasm between Los Angeles and Tokyo. Though Tokyo feels cold and distant to Lucy, it is full of vibrant life to everyone else in the city. Alternatively, we see the grungy, seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, which seems to appeal to no one. We also experience the unrefined and ugly aspects of American society, which are reflected in the dingy streets, houses, and motels that Lucy visits.
Oh Lucy! ultimately succeeds thanks to the quality of its cast. Shinobu Terajima is perfectly cast as the naive heroine, while Hartnett is completely believable as the quintessential American living abroad. The rest of the cast does an admirable job, but it is the combined talent of the film’s two leads that really make Oh Lucy! a memorable viewing experience.
Review: ★★★★ out of 5
If you’d like to watch Oh Lucy! (2017), it is currently available to rent our purchase via Amazon here.
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