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Genuinely Original, 'Oh, Lucy' Is A Portrait Of Loneliness

Film Movement

At the start of Oh, Lucy, Setsuko, played by Shinobu Terajima, stands in a crowd waiting for a train. It’s cold and flu season, so like most of the others, Setsuko wears a mask. Her eyes, though, look sad. Later, without the mask, she still looks sad and a good bit uncertain. Something terrible happens on the train platform, but you get the feeling that what ails Setsuko came much earlier.

Setsuko’s niece wrangles her into taking English lessons, which do not look promising. Setsuko is sent down a long hallway with closed doors on either side - it looks like a kind of sex club. When she enters room 301, she meets her teacher for the private lesson. He’s an aggressive young American named John (Josh Hartnett) who immediately teaches her casual phrases like “Hi” and “How you doing?” and insists that they share a big American hug. Setsuko is reticent and Japanese, a society not big on American-style hugs. She looks like she’s caught in a vise. Learning the high-five comes next, and then John tells Setsuko her name is now Lucy. She’s been hugged and renamed in about a minute. John also slaps a frightful blonde wig on her. It’s hard to tell if he’s teaching her English or running a clown workshop.

Oh, Lucy is written and directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi, a young woman making just her second feature, who has a freewheeling sense of story and character. Oh, Lucy veers between farce and sadness. The niece runs away to America – with John, it turns out – and on an impulse Setsuko and her sister, the mother of the niece, fly off to Los Angeles to track her down. Everybody’s at odds – Setsuko and her sister argue throughout the movie, the niece doesn’t want to be found, and John is an entire story unto himself.

Director Hirayanagi seems right at home with the garish side of life. Setsuko, her sister and John wind up in a dreary, salmon colored motel with a pouty, self-important young slob sitting behind a plate glass window at the office. As Setsuko wanders the streets late at night, hoping to mail a postcard, a huge, menacing guy in a tank top turns out friendly and simply shows her how to use a mailbox.

Oh, Lucy is genuinely original and surprising. The film doesn’t prepare you for what’s coming or how it all might end.

But inside the emotional zigs and zags, Oh, Lucy is a picture of dislocation and loneliness. Setsuko in a San Diego tattoo parlor late at night may be a funny sight, but what got her there is not. At first, her sudden shifts of behavior suggest a delightful spirit, but then you see the desperation. She’s unmoored; she’s disconnected from other people and her own life, and what surfaces is her blocked need to find companionship.

The social world in Oh, Lucy doesn’t have much holding it together. At Setsuko’s job, an older woman about to retire is handed a grotesque flower arrangement, along with her boss’s insincere statements about the next chapter in life. The woman pretends gratitude, but the image of her alone at a subway stop indicates that emptiness and loneliness are on the way. People are always going somewhere and getting nowhere. Human interaction is either angry or coldly isolated.

Setsuko tries to contact a kind of random sexual hunger that pops out at the wrong time with the wrong person.

Oh, Lucy throws out the kinds of sharp, sudden actions that make you yelp, and then wonder if you’re laughing or gasping. It leaves you unsettled and distrustful, but always attracted to what’s going on and what may be coming. The picture is at the same time charming and baffling. It flirts with disasters and then pulls back, but you can never trust that the next time won’t lead to complete ruin.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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