By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
We live in a time when films like the recently released “Burnt” and “Chef” (2014) project the glory of chefs and the culinary profession to the yelping masses, but “East Side Sushi” is not that. Protagonist Juana is a single mother struggling to support her daughter with menial jobs as a gym custodian and helping her widowed father operate a fruit stand in their native Oakland, Calif. While closing up the fruit stand for her father, she is robbed at gunpoint and, shortly thereafter, she stumbles upon a “Help Wanted” sign at Osaka Sushi in downtown Oakland.
Juana is hired as a dishwasher and prep cook at Osaka Sushi, but it’s the magic behind the sushi bar that draws her in. She observes, fumbles, and struggles to push through the boundaries that prevent her from becoming a sushi chef. For one, Juana is not the Gordon Ramsey-inspired archetype with a brigade that follows her lead. Instead, Juana is a Latina single mother trying to prove herself to a stern set of Japanese sushi chefs who do not accept women behind the sushi bar. She must prove that she is worthy despite little knowledge of the cuisine and an apparent inability to handle chopsticks.
After demonstrating impressive knife skills, sushi chef Aki eventually shows Juana how to handle fish.
Juana begins preparing basic rolls for the restaurant on its busy days, even creating some of the restaurant’s most popular rolls. Despite her growing passion to excel in sushi making, Juana faces doubt not only from Osaka’s sushi chefs, but from her father, who pushes her to work with more familiar food at a taqueria.
Restaurant owner Mr. Yoshida discovers Juana’s new role at the restaurant and forbids her from handling fish, saying, “You want to be a sushi chef? You go try another restaurant, not here. It is not a job for you.”
The film questions the struggle to maintain traditions or authenticity, which tugs on the perception of who could and should be cooking our food. East Side Sushi is shot in urban Oakland, but its diversity and the conflicts that arise in the film is a much needed, more accurate portrayal of subtle conflicts that arise in a diversifying restaurant scene not unlike Seattle where Chinese restaurants staff Latino cooks, Koreans own Cajun restaurants, and American chefs embrace Korean food.
East Side Sushi is director Anthony Lucero’s first feature debut. Lucero’s previous film work includes creating visual effects on blockbusters like “Iron Man”, “Star Wars Episode II”, and “Pirates of the Caribbean”. But East Side draws from Lucero’s background as a documentary filmmaker, blending bittersweet slice-of-life developments between Juana and her family with a behind-the-scenes look at sushi-making that blends the food porn-dusted struggles and charming feel-good themes of “Ramen Girl” (2008) and Real Women Have Curves (2002).
More important, “East Side Sushi” is far removed from its foodie film counterparts. But perhaps for that reason, the film is relevant as it speaks to a wider audience, anyone who has been told for any reason, “This is not the place for you.” (end)
“East Side Sushi” opens in Seattle on Nov. 13 at Sundance Cinemas and on Nov. 14 at Ark Lodge Cinema.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at email@example.com.