East Side Sushi (US 2014)

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) and Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) 'out front' in the sushi restaurant 'Osaka'

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) and Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) ‘out front’ in the sushi restaurant ‘Osaka’.

The ‘East Side’ of this title is in Oakland, California which is home to a significant Latino community. Juana is a single mother with a small daughter. Juana lives with her ageing father and works as hard as she can to support her family. With significant experience in the kitchens of local taquerías, Juana one day sees a job vacancy in the kitchen of a sushi restaurant. Although this is just a kitchen assistant’s job, she is attracted by the medical insurance benefits that come with a permanent post. Once in post, Juana soon impresses with her knife work and before long she becomes fascinated with the art and culture of sushi preparation.

East Side Sushi is an ‘ultra low budget’ film by writer-director Anthony Lucero. Although he had to virtually fund the film out of his own pocket, Lucero was able to use industry colleagues as crew and professional actors for key roles. In a Q&A he revealed that his day job is “freelancing for Lucasfilm in the documentary division”. This is evident in the strong documentary feel to parts of the film. I learned a great deal about the actual process of preparing the ingredients and presenting the sushi plate – more in fact than I got from the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (US 2011). Lucero also had the aim of showing the meeting of cultures, Mexican and Japanese, and this becomes one of the drivers of the narrative. Juana clearly has the knife skills to become a sushi chef, but will the twin issues of her gender and ethnicity prove to be unsurmountable obstacles?

Juana can see that there isn't much future in her fruit cart business . . .

Juana can see that there isn’t much future in her fruit cart business . . .

But East Side Sushi is not a documentary and it isn’t ‘social realism’ in the sense understood in European film cultures. This is an American film and it employs that familiar American narrative structure of ‘the hero’s journey’ – even moving into the genre of the ‘competition/sports film’. Can Juana win the regional heat of the ‘Champion of Sushi’ TV competition? Judging by the comments of the reporters of its film festival success (lots of ‘Audience Awards’ in the US), East Side Sushi is a winning ‘feelgood film’. I have to agree. Anthony Lucero might believe that he has produced a film that is ” . . . [not] mainstream, not your typical Hollywood film” – but it does have the same kind of audience appeal. The technical credits are all good and so are the performances, especially that of Diana Elizabeth Torres as Juana. The music works well and the subject is interesting. I enjoyed the film very much and I would support and recommend its wider distribution. Perhaps the one aspect that takes it outside the (US) mainstream is that a large part of the film is subtitled with dialogue in Spanish or Japanese. This leads into the most germane question for this blog. Is East Side Sushi a potential international film?

There is a large and rapidly growing Hispanic film and TV market in the US which, like the South Asian film and TV market in the UK, is largely confined to Spanish language TV stations and specific cinema distribution networks. It’s difficult to get a sense of how this works from a distance but I note that East Side Sushi will open in cinemas in California on Friday 18th September and particularly in the Maya Cinemas chain – multiplexes serving areas with a significant Latino population. Screening details are available via the official website (screenings are also scheduled for Colorado, Arizona and Texas) which includes extra information about the filmmakers.

Thinking about this film, I realised that the only directly similar film I can remember getting a (very limited) UK release was Real Women Have Curves (US 2002) which helped launch the career of America Ferrera. It would be good to see Diana Elizabeth Torres get similar further opportunities. Interestingly, Paraíso (Paradise, Mexico 2014) also features a cookery competition as a generic device. Although I have seen only a few films like East Side Sushi, I do note that it is often a younger woman who seeks to find ways to improve herself and in so doing has to prove her worth not only to her employers but also to a (usually supportive) father. I won’t spoil the narrative here except to point out that it does to some extent rely on generic elements in order to build up our expectations. I think I would have liked a grittier social realism feel to the story – but then I would have missed the detail of the sushi presentation and TV competition! So, if you get to see the film I’m sure you will have an enjoyable time.

Here’s the trailer:

and the Facebook link.

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