Japanese Office worker Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) leaves her tiny flat – where she appears to live as a hoarder – and makes her way to work. Whilst she avoids her overbearing sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), she loves her niece Mika Ogawa (Australian born Shioli Kutsuna, who recently appeared in Deadpool 2) even though both see her as a doormat. Standing at the train station, Setsuko witnesses a man throw himself in front of a train. In another film, witnessing such an event would spur on our hero to seek out excitement, but in writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! it just means Setsuko is late for work.
It’s not until our downtrodden protagonist is encouraged to take an English class that things take a turn. There, Setsuko meets John (Josh Hartnett), an English tutor who knows very little Japanese and encourages his students to wear wigs and use western names in class. As an EAL gateway, he’s a bit of a flop, but to Setsuko he’s a chance for change. In a tacky blonde wig and using the name Lucy, Setsuka starts digging deep into herself to find something new.
Hirayanagi defies her audience’s expectations almost immediately. Rather than embracing life, Setsuko merely gets drunk and badmouths her colleagues at a leaving party. However, when Mika runs off with John to America, Setsuko takes Ayako to find her, even though it’s obvious she’s doing it for her own interests rather than that of her sibling.
Based on her own short, Hirayanagi has constructed a protagonist who, initially, breaks the stereotypical mould of someone who sets off to rediscover themselves ala Eat Pray Love or Shirley Valentine. No, in her dogged pursuit of John, Setsuko comes across as somewhat manipulative. Not that the audience isn’t made to feel sympathetic towards her. Knowing that her sister once stole her boyfriend from her, it’s understandable that Setsuko would look for love in all the wrong places. Hirayanagi is quick to prove that her hero is only human.
Once things move to the US though, Oh Lucy! loses something and it’s not just Hartnett’s foppish English teacher being exposed as a sad sack once he’s back on his home turf. Having originally kept the aforementioned rediscovery tropes at arm’s length, Setsuko’s world view is broadened by clichés of alcohol, drugs and sex. And as she explores America, she comes across as more naïve than you would expect. She’s not Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, but her actions don’t ring true. None of which gels with what we’ve seen of her previously. Though admittedly, this could be a byproduct of Setsuko reinventing herself.
That aside, there’s strength to be found in her interactions. As sisters, Minami and Terjima are wonderfully bitter to each other, sniping at any given chance. A highlight sees them bickering in broken English over the head of a fellow passenger, played by Megan Mullaly (Will and Grace).
Sombre with broad strokes of humour, Oh Lucy! may not do much with its fish out of water second half, but with strong performances by all the cast, Hirayanagi has assembled a testament to self-discovery that is happy to admit that we can’t make changes wholesale.