(2017) Dramedy (Film Movement) Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Köji Yakusho, Shioli Kutsuna, Megan Mullally, Reiko Ayelsworth, Nick Gracer, Liz Bolton, Miyoko Yamaguchi, Hajime Inoue, Hiroaki Miyagawa, Stephanie A, Leni Ito, Calvin Winbush, Eddie Hassell, Todd Giebenhain, Tre Hale, Noelani Dacascos, Kimie Tanaka. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi
We don’t always end up where we expect to in our lives – in fact we rarely do. The bright promise of youth often gives way to the dreary reality of middle age. Sometimes it just takes the smallest of changes for us to recapture some of that bright promise and make a go of changing that dreary reality.
Setsuko (Terajima) is in that place where she goes through life almost as an automaton. Shuffling through the streets of Tokyo with a white surgical mask obscuring her features, she trudges day after day to a job in a nondescript office as a fabled Office Lady, working for a boss (Inoue) who has no respect for her in an office of shallow lab rats who sneer at their colleagues (always behind their backs) and don’t quite see that they are no different than they. One day, Setsuko witnesses something horrible on the way to work but it doesn’t seem to faze her at all.
Setsuko dotes on her niece Mika (Kutsuna) who dressed up as a sexy maid for her waitressing job in one of those Tokyo themed restaurants and whose enthusiasm for life is like a tonic to Setsuko who lives in what could charitably be called a hole in the wall apartment that from its slovenly appearance seems to be the residence of someone who has given up. Perpetually dealing with money problems, Mika asks her aunt to take over payment on an English language lesson. Setsuko doesn’t really want to but Mika charms her into it by telling her about a free sample lesson.
The lesson is taught by John (Hartnett), an ex-pat American whose methods are to say the least unorthodox. He is a hugger, which is something that the stoic Japanese are not. He assigns Setsuko an identity of an American; he bestows on her a blonde wig and the name of Lucy. Surprisingly Setsuko enjoys the lesson and she decides to come back. Perhaps Tom (Yakusho), a widower who is also taking English lessons and turns out to be a kind and sweet fellow, is one big reason why but it might be more that John’s hug has awakened something in Setsuko.
But it all comes to a screeching halt when John resigns and goes back home to America. To make matters worse for Setsuko, he takes Mika with him – the two had been having a romance. Setsuko eventually gets a postcard from Mika inviting her to visit her niece in sunny Southern California. Following the awkward and dispiriting retirement party of a colleague who was a particular target of behind the back abuse, Setsuko determines to take her niece up on the offer.
Joining her is her bitchy sister Ayako (Minami) with whom Setsuko bickers incessantly. The two women despite their sibling ties don’t seem to like each other very much and we eventually find out why. Ayako seems to be bitter, demanding and rude. The two Japanese ladies greet a bewildered John who greets them with equally bewildering news that Mika broke up with him and took the car to drive down to San Diego. There’s only one thing to do – the two Japanese women and John set out on a road trip in which Setsuko will try on the Lucy persona for a test spin.
Hirayanagi developed this from a short film she created that made the festival rounds a couple of years ago, including SXSW and Toronto. However, this is substantially different from the short which was much more of a comedy than this is. That said, this is a very, very, VERY good film.
The humor is low-key and a bit quirky, giving the film an off-beat charm that keeps the more dramatic sequences from being overwhelming. Don’t be fooled by the charm however; this is a very human film with all that implies with highs and lows (and sometimes very low lows) that when pen is put to paper describing the plot, it makes this movie sound like it should be a downer but curiously, it isn’t.
Part of the reason for that is a terrific performance by Terajima. She imbues Setsuko with a near-impenetrable mask but the sadness that Setsuko carries in her is very close to the surface and becomes apparent from her body language and especially her eyes. Setsuko has spent her life just accepting the lot given her like the sweets given to her by her colleagues to help her over her smoker’s cough that go straight into a drawer in her desk and stay there. Now, she is ready to change her lot and change is never an easy process. It’s terrifying and dangerous.
One of the highlights of the movie is the way American and Japanese cultures are juxtaposed and how mystifying they are to one another. I suspect neither Setsuko nor Ayako are truly representative of Japanese culture any more than John is representative of American culture; John is not at all as he represents himself to be and the more time we spend with him, the more we realize his facade is a front. By the end of the movie, our appraisal of John changes a good deal.
Suicide is a major theme in the movie which for some viewers might be difficult. Caution should be taken if you’re the sort who gets extremely bothered by onscreen suicide attempts. There are three in the movie and they aren’t done for laughs. At least two are pretty shocking so be aware of that. Nonetheless this is the first indie movie of 2018 to carry on last year’s parade of high quality indie films that made 2017 one of the best years for indie films in recent memory. If this is indication, 2018 may be as good or perhaps even better.
REASONS TO GO: This is an off-beat film but in a very good way. The humor is low-key and subtle for the most part. Terajima is an absolute gem. The movie makes great use of cultural differences.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who have issues with suicide may find this a hard film to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, disturbing images, drug use and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hirayanagi originally developed this as a short film; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay took it to the branch of their Gary Sanchez Productions headed by Ferrell’s former assistant Jessica Elbaum (called Gloria Sanchez Productions) which specializes on movies made by and/or about women.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in Translation
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Vanishing of Sidney White