The new indie release Oh Lucy, from Japanese-American writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi, examines the life of Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a lonely, chain-smoking woman of a certain age.  It’s the sort of film that captures well-crafted characters undergoing real change, with all the messiness, hilarity, and unpleasantness attached to it.

After being confronted with mortality, Setsuko says yes to taking over one-on-one English lessons being conducted by unorthodox instructor John (Josh Hartnett).  On the very first day of class, he places a platinum wig on her head and creates for her the American alter-ego Lucy.  Her interactions with John start Setsuko on a strange personal journey that forces change, largely as a result of a series of very bad choices, not least of which include her following him to LA under false pretenses.

Oh Lucy! has been called a Japanese-infused Hello My Name is Doris, and they do share a number of qualities, the most obvious of which is the largely unlikeable, yet compelling lead character.  Actress Shinobu Terajima is a big star in her native Japan, and she brings an authenticity and what appears to be depression and a genuine struggle with internal conflict and chaos to Setsuko.  She seems ever reserved and calm, but based on her decisions, she must be screaming on the inside.  Hartnett’s John, as with nearly everyone in the film, vacillates between being someone for whom the viewer feels compassion and disgust.  It’s the writer/director ability, through the action and dialogue, to yoyo the audience on an emotional string, that makes Oh Lucy! so fascinating and watchable. For a first feature, Hirayanagi had the great fortune to have master thespian Terajima bringing her cinematic vision to life.

I spoke to Hirayanagi about getting Terajima for her first feature:

“she is a big deal! The script won the Jury Prize at Sundance, so NHK, Japan’s Public Broadcasting Corporation, wanted to be involved in producing, and they were a huge help in casting.  They have a huge pool of talent for casting because of all the great productions they work on in Japan. They make so many epic historical dramas they basically know everyone in the entire film and television industry. They gave me a list of actresses and since I don’t live in Japan, that was a great help, and when I saw Shinobu on the list I couldn’t believe it. The minute I saw her name I knew it was her. I came to the US when I was 17, so I haven’t seen enough Japanese film to really know, but she was very famous even outside Japan because of the movie Vibrator, which an American friend showed me when I was in film school. I felt really ignorant at the time about Japanese movies, and that was one everyone knew and recommended. I loved the rawness and honesty in her performance.  I sent her the script and the short and after meeting me she said yes. I think she was and is perfect as Lucy.”

Clearly, the partnership between Hirayanagi and Terajima worked, and they captured something magical, albeit melancholy onscreen.  In the end, though, Oh Lucy! is about peeling back layers, revealing what’s behind the masks we all wear everyday, and showing what’s behind them to not only those around us, but ourselves. In watching Setsuko as she drops away mask after mask, we can consider doing that for ourselves.  That’s great catharsis, and worth two hours in the dark.