Japanese Films at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 Review Round-Up: Atsuko Hirayanagi’s “Oh Lucy!”

It has been a while since I last did a review round-up of any festival but fellow cinephile and Twitter-user FelixAguirre regularly collects links to reviews and alerts them to me and with such a treasure-trove of opinions from the most recent Cannes Film Festival on offer, I’d be mad to turn them down. Following on from Blade of the Immortal, Radiance, and Before We Vanish is…

Oh Lucy!

Oh Lucy Film Image 3

I may talk good game about supporting female filmmakers and supporting Japanese films but when Oh Lucy! came up and I saw that it had AmericanAtsuko Hirayanagi backing I left it to write about last and then forgot about it. The director, Atsuko Hirayanagi, and actual genesis of the film itself seem really interesting and I regret not initially including it in my Cannes post (it was only after Felix Aguirre pointed me to the reviews that I realised my mistake) and I will endeavour to cover things more effectively.

Having just looked for the trailer, it turns out that I wrote about the short-film version of this when it was at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014 and I also wrote about it being at the Cannes 2014 festival… I will also file away Atsuko Hirayanagi’s name so when she crops up, I can point film fans to her reviews (here’s her IMDB page)…

Oh Lucy!   Oh Lucy Film Poster

Running Time: 95 mins

Release Date: N/A

Director:  Atsuko Hirayanagi

Writer: Atsuko Hirayanagi, Boris Frumin (Screenplay),

Starring: Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Koji Yakusho, Reiko Aylesworth, Casey J. Adler, Megan Mullally, Calvin C. Winbush, Kayano, Kimie Tanaka, Leni Ito,

Website IMDB

Look at that cast! Shinobu Terajima, Koji Yajusho, Kaho Minami, and Josh Hartnett. Three great actors in Japanese cinema and Josh Hartnett (who is pretty good in the serial-killer movie, I Come with the Rain)! They all came together for Atsuko Hiryanagi who has made a film about an office drone who throws off convention and pursues her English teacher back to his native California.

Hirayanagi is a new director who went to NYU Tisch School of Arts in Asia as a mother of two children who had a black belt in karate and came out with a number of short films including the award-winning short Oh Lucy! (2014) which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and was developed into this project that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. You can read more here but it’s an inspiring story and the resulting film looks great. Here are two clips:

Synopsis from the filmmakers: The drama-comedy tells the story of Setsuko Kawashima (Terajima), a lonely, chain-smoking office lady in Tokyo who is past her prime. After deciding to take an English class, she discovers a new identity in her American alter ego, ‘Lucy,’ and falls for her instructor, John (Hartnett). When John suddenly disappears, Setsuko earnestly sets out on a quest to find him, eventually leading her to the outskirts of Southern California.

What did the critics think?

Consensus seems to be that while it’s far from slick like the works that other directors at the festival presented, it has heart thanks to the Atsuko Hirayanagi’s unique world-view which is dark. She knows when to revel in the darkness and when to pull back. The film may be rough in terms of its execution but it has substance in the way it depicts the lives of women and it has bite and that bite refuses to let go of the audience until the end. More importantly, it’s unique and not some cookie-cutter drama you may expect from Japan:

while it’s uneven, and at times seems almost artless in its craft, the story has an idiosyncratic charm that pays off in an unexpectedly touching ending.David Rooney – The Hollywood Reporter

There’s pleasingly little sentimentality and much honesty to be found in Hirayanagi’s screenplay, particularly in its acknowledgement that new experiences can make you lose, as much as broaden, your mind. It’s also sharp in its critical appraisal of the expectations placed on women of all cultures to be paired up.” Nikki Baughan – Screen Daily

Oh Lucy Film Image

A lot of critics thought that the main character was well-written and engaging and that was enough to keep the film interesting. The main reason for the attractiveness of the character came from the experienced actor Shinobu Terajima who is able to modulate her performance with such skill she wins plaudits in many of the reviews:

No doubt it’s fitting that a film about transformation and reinvention should be so prone to that too. Oh Lucy!’s plot feels overthought. The tone see-saws wildly. What prevents it collapsing are the warm, heartfelt performances, together with Hirayanagi’s obvious affection for her chief protagonist. Xan Brooks – The Guardian

Terajima is irresistible in the lead role, shifting from painfully childlike vulnerability to rapier nastiness on a dime; in one late scene with Hartnett, she appears to age fifteen years in a matter of seconds. It helps that Hirayanagi’s loose filmmaking style gives her plenty of room to flesh out the character, sometimes lingering on the aftermath of a punchline for a few seconds too many, allowing the laughter to start to curdle into discomfort, rather than simply cutting away.Andrew Barker – Variety

Oh Lucy Film Image 5

Ultimately, the script presents its main character and her world in a dark way which makes the sentimental ending more powerful. The material is good enough for critics to call Hirayanagi a director to watch:

“Oh Lucy!” betrays some rough edges in the transition, but Hirayanagi’s idiosyncratic touch marks her as a talent worth tracking.Andrew Barker – Variety

This story is actually close to my experience as an English teacher in Japan (apart from the hugging and wig, haha). I met a painfully shy middle-aged female student who worked in an office Tokyo who believed in hiding her feelings. We formed a connection of sorts. I was taught that a teacher is shepherd who looks after their flock but I cared about nearly all of my students without having to remember that (although there were a few scary salarymen who I usually wanted to avoid, haha). She would make a bee-line for me and she would speak more with me than the other teachers who she chose to remain quiet with (much to my colleagues annoyance) and so we talked about various things. Towards the end of my time in the class I tried to give her as much encouragement as I could to pursue her dreams and ambitions and overcome her shyness and that included trying unconventional things such as using props and drawing on whiteboards and paper, making strange noises. I often wonder what has happened to her. In reality, she has probably moved on to another teacher to practice English with so there’s no sense in being wistful about things, haha.

I really want to see this film and the interviews with Josh Hartnett and Atsuko Hirayanagi make it look more interesting:

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