The heroine of Atsuko Hirayanagi’s film “Oh Lucy!” behaves badly — at times shockingly so.
It’s “contrary to what is expected of a quiet Asian woman,” says Hirayanagi, the San Francisco-based writer-director of the movie, which opens Friday in the Bay Area after success on the film festival circuit, including Cannes and Toronto.
Executive produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, the quirky movie (adapted from Hirayanagi’s school thesis and, later, short film) is about a lonely, middle-aged Tokyo office worker, Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) who enrolls in an English class where she acquires a new name, Lucy, and a blond fright-wig from her unconventional, not terribly qualified American teacher (Josh Hartnett).
Her personality changes drastically, too.
She becomes “fearless, loud and even a monster — if that’s what she needed to be,” says Hirayanagi. “She alarms people, so people know that she exists.”
The Japanese director, a Noe Valley resident since 2014, has moved back and forth between Japan and the U.S., the two worlds in “Oh Lucy!”
Hirayanagi’s first experience of the U.S. was as a high school exchange student who barely spoke English. She says, “I too became the quiet girl, I never spoke in class, paralyzed by my fears — a fear of being inadequate, of being laughed at, or viewed as an anomaly. So I shut up. It was way easier to be quiet and to just be the person people expected me to be. The ‘quiet Asian girl’ doesn’t alarm people. It was my mask, and also my armor.”
When Lucy discards her mask (her head covered, ironically, by the wig), her story of liberation is not what Hollywood would make.
Hirayanagi makes a case for dark aspects of the story: “The marginalized office lady Setsuko is hiding her fears, as most of us do. She just wants to love and be loved, but is so afraid of being rejected or betrayed.”
Filmmaking, Hirayanagi says, “is about showing and sharing our fears, so we don’t feel alone. If movies allow us to remove these masks, even for a short moment, maybe we’ll realize that we are all the same, scared little chickens beneath our masks, and we can laugh about it together … even with strangers in a dark theater.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Shioli Kutsuna
Written and directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi
Running time 1 hour, 36 minutes
Note: Hirayanagi is slated to speak following the 7 p.m. March 16 screening at the Embarcadero in The City, as well as screenings at the Shattuck in Berkeley on March 17 and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on March 18.