OH LUCY! Review
Director: Atsuko Hirayanagi
There are few gestures that are quite as prototypically American as the hug, a greeting that is imparted with ease and equanimity. The hug has no barriers: from young to old, Americans love to embrace one another, and it’s come to define their culture as cavalier and informal. In a humble stroke of genius, the hug is exactly what sets the plot to director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s debut feature, OH LUCY! in motion. What follows is a fascinating, albeit uneven, case study of cultural barriers and what can happen when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones.
OH LUCY! follows Setsuko, a lonely Japanese bachelorette living through the tedium of day-to-day office life, until one day a peculiar experience at an experimental English course leaves her smitten by the loud, outward confidence of John, her teacher (played by a wildly charismatic Josh Hartnett). It’s a moment of discomfort that quickly cascades into infatuation, all catalyzed by nothing more than a hug. After discovering that her all-American object of desire has run away to California with her niece, Setsuko embarks on an epic road trip in hopes of winning over her elusive crush.
Alternate album art for Frank Ocean’s BLOND
Hirayanagi’s understanding of cultural practices and their diametric oppositions makes for a particularly compelling case study in audience allegiance. We empathize with Setsuko: she’s timid and gentle, but vies for love, attention, and the brash confidence that would make her feel right at home in California. She’s a Japanese woman nurtured in a society she has never really assimilated to. Her sister thinks she’s selfish and her co-workers quietly tolerate her. Having said all that, it’s impossible to ignore Setsuko’s hardline assertiveness, something that comes to a feverish boil in a sexual outburst halfway into the film.
As such, it’s easy to read John as the victim of Setsuko’s deranged antics. He was only her teacher, after all. Never did he flirt or romantically engage with Setsuko. But it is exactly this notion that Hirayanagi begs to question. The hug is where OH LUCY! lives and dies. As viewers, we evenly acknowledge that Setsuko goes too far once her romantic conquest is in full swing, but it’s a decision that she makes because John misled her. Hirayanagi protests to her viewer that John’s teaching methods, though possibly effective, are also deeply inconsiderate of Japanese customs and the effect they could have on a woman like Setsuko.
Pictured: The cast and crew of OH LUCY! reacting to my praise
Despite some pacing issues—most notably its slow takeoff and stuffy, inconsistent second act—OH LUCY! blossoms within the complex, societal structures of Tokyo. And though the film posits itself as a comedy first and foremost, it’s the depth of its social commentary that helps raise it a cut above the rest. Hirayanagi’s film isn’t here to declare that Setsuko is a woman who would be happier living in America with her Adonis-like Caucasian boyfriend. Au contraire: it’s a portrait of a woman who discovers that there are other people out there who she can hug, she just needs to find them.