Editor’s Note: East Side Sushi opens in limited theatrical release today, September 18, 2015.
Life is stressful for twenty-something Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres). Getting up before 4:00 a.m. every day, she cooks breakfast for her father Apa (Rodrigo Duarte Clark), then dresses her still-sleeping daughter Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre), before they all head out to the Oakland fruit market to buy produce for their fruit cart business. After Juana is beaten and robbed while manning the cart, she sets out to find new work, and happens upon a job in the kitchen at a local sushi restaurant. She applies, somewhat against her father’s wishes, and soon realizes that she wants to be a sushi chef and work up front, but quickly learns that women, especially Latina women, are expected to stay in the kitchen.
The overall tone of the film is good-natured and cheery, however, and Torres as the determined Juana gives a passionate and crowd-pleasing performance.
East Side Sushi, the debut feature film from director Anthony Lucero, is a sweet but slight tale of culture clashes and the difficulties of following your dreams. Much of the story here is a rehash of the sort of thing seen in countless movies and television shows: there’s the plucky young woman determined to make a better life for herself, the older man set in his ways, the cute little kid, the happenstance of the perfect job falling into someone’s lap, and even a big splashy contest with a huge cash prize for our heroine to enter.
It’s this reliance on cliché that bogs East Side Sushi down, and for the first half, it’s pretty tough to stay engaged. The overall tone of the film is good-natured and cheery, however, and Torres as the determined Juana gives a passionate and crowd-pleasing performance. Yutaka Takeuchi as Aki, the head sushi chef who befriends Juana, is fantastic, with a subdued but no less intense passion of his own. Also helping to move the sluggish plot along are some terrific shots of the vibrant East Oakland community, as well as plenty of dishes, both Mexican and Japanese, that guarantee you will be hungry by the film’s finale.
Still, East Side Sushi pushes its theme of cultural differences a little too hard, especially in regards to what it deems a problem with the self-segregation of immigrant cultures in California. The film makes some subtle and effective points about the difference between our popular perception of the American melting pot and the reality of recent immigrants, but too often East Side Sushi takes the concept too far, making (possibly accidental) judgments that are unfair.
East Side Sushi excels in its more gentle, unassuming scenes, and when it has the confidence to rely on little details rather than heavy-handed dialogue or metaphors.
In the same vein, East Side Sushi occasionally turns what’s supposed to be cultural commentary or cutesy little jokes into cringe-worthy moments. Take the bad “Iron Chef” rip-off, which looks as though it were written by someone who had never seen the show, but had once had it explained to him. A similar problem occurs in a scene when Juana, who is obviously intelligent, is frequently made to look silly and confused, such as when she mistakes “tako,” the Japanese word for “octopus,” for tacos, and Aki just sighs. It’s a bad sitcom-style joke, the kind of thing you’d see in the 1970s when Middle America still chuckled nervously if they heard a foreign word spoken aloud in public. It’s not that humor can’t be found in such heady subjects as sexism, low-income jobs, immigration and assimilation, it’s that a fair bit of the humor in East Side Sushi isn’t actually funny at all.
Thankfully, East Side Sushi excels in its more gentle, unassuming scenes, and when it has the confidence to rely on little details rather than heavy-handed dialogue or metaphors. It’s a nice, enjoyable, humanistic little film, one that’s sure to appeal to plenty. East Side Sushi may take a long time to get going, but once it does, it proves well worth the wait.
Though slow-going at first and with some rather specious humor, East Side Sushi is a fun, heart-warming film with solid performances.