The Lucy in "Oh Lucy!" is a droopy middle-aged Tokyo office worker named Setsuko Kawashima (Shinobu Terajima), who abruptly decides to take a break from her gloomy, deadening routine. At the insistence of her upbeat young niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), she joins an English class, held in a shady-looking motel and taught by a gregarious tourist named John (Josh Hartnett).
Radiating warm exuberance from beneath glasses and a thin mustache, John hands the befuddled Setsuko a curly golden wig and a new name, Lucy, teaching her to cast aside her worries and embrace the laid-back American way.
"Looks like you need a hug," he says, pulling her into a tight embrace. Setsuko doesn't know how to respond at first to John's strong arms and giddy vocal exercises, but her long-neglected heart knows instinctively. Before long she is smitten, so much so that when John suddenly quits and hops a plane for sunny Los Angeles, taking Mika with him, Setsuko impulsively decides to follow. At which point I started to wonder if I had wandered into a Japanese riff on Wong Kar-wai's dazzling Hong Kong nocturne "Chungking Express" (1994), a movie similarly awash in blond hairpieces, brief encounters and California dreamin'.
The first feature written and directed by the Japanese filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi, adapting her own 22-minute short of the same title, "Oh Lucy!" doesn't have much of Wong's narrative or stylistic playfulness. Nor does its story of a jaded, alienated loner throwing off the shackles of her everyday existence break any new ground. But within the confines of this cross-cultural shaggy-dog tale, Hirayanagi locates both a sharp vein of absurdist comedy and a bitter, melancholy undertow. She also has a deft enough touch to make one mode almost indistinguishable from the other.
Are we meant to laugh or cry at an early scene in which Setsuko's younger co-workers bid an insincere farewell to a weepy office lifer being forced into retirement? Knowing the same fate surely awaits her someday — followed, maybe, by a grim fate not unlike the one she witnesses on a subway platform one morning — Setsuko decides to ditch her lowly job and cluttered studio apartment and bask in the SoCal sunshine. She embraces her inner Lucy.
She makes the mistake, however, of bringing along some not-insignificant baggage — namely her estranged sister, Ayako (an impressively sour Kaho Minami), who is also Mika's overbearing mother. The two sisters land in L.A. and manage to track down John, now wasting away in the crummy apartment he once shared with Mika, who has headed south to San Diego. And so this improbable trio follows suit, with Setsuko and Ayako rehashing old gripes and petty resentments at every step, even as Setsuko stealthily, endearingly and finally cringingly tries to worm her way into John's affections.
Hirayanagi has a sharp understanding of the pleasures of role play, something she signals with an early scene in which Mika, a Tokyo café waitress, wears a regulation French maid's dress. There's something goofily liberating about the alter ego Setsuko tries on with John and her only classmate, Takeshi (Kôji Yakusho), who becomes "Tom" with the help of his own frumpy brown toupee. But every mask inevitably falls away, as John's does, revealing past mistakes and a dead-end existence to rival Setsuko's own. (Hartnett, in a slyly self-effacing performance, completely nails John's deadbeat charm.)
Haunted by the looming specter of suicide throughout, "Oh Lucy!" takes some intriguing left turns in its second half, not all of them successful; this slender character study can't entirely support the weight of the bitter family dynamics it sets in motion. What distinguishes the movie is Hirayanagi's talent for distilling complex emotional histories into crisp, eloquent images — a crowded drawer, a cluttered apartment — as well as Terajima's performance as a downtrodden, defiant woman who never begs for the audience's sympathy and winds up earning it anyway. Against all odds, you find yourself rooting for Setsuko, and for Lucy, too.
(In Japanese and English with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles