East Side Sushi
“Sushi” stars Diana Elizabeth Torres as Juana, a single mom living in Oakland. She operates a small fruit cart in her neighborhood with her father (Rodriguo Duarte Clark) and her young child. Juana is frustrated at her inability to find a good job in the U.S., though she’s a more than competent chef. Her father has health issues but is content with the meager income the cart brings in.
Juana, wanting more after being robbed, applies for a dishwashing job at a sushi restaurant. There she meets Chef Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), who takes a liking to Juana and notices her eagerness and ability with a knife. Juana begins learning to make sushi, and shows skill, not realizing she is immersing herself in a culture that claims women can’t make sushi because their hands are too warm.
Soon Juana wants a promotion, but the store’s stolid, traditional owner (Roger Oyama) steadfastly refuses. Still, she continues to learn, eyeballing a sushi competition that will lend her legitimacy and a lot of cash.
Director Anthony Lucero creates a boot camp obstacle course of cultural barriers for Juana to climb: She’s a Hispanic single mother immigrant in the U.S.; her father’s prejudices against Japanese food (there are excellent scenes where Juana prods him to try sushi, until he finally does); the Japanese culture that forbids women from being a sushi chef, plus the fact that she is a racial outsider.
Still, Torres puts on a brave face throughout, imbuing Juana with a steadfast, resolute sense of pride in herself. She’s not willing to compromise even in the face of easy money; we see her choose to give up jobs because they aren’t fulfilling to her. She gives a terrific performance.
There does seem to be a bit too much going on all at once, and the movie awkwardly shifts gears away from the sushi restaurant to bring in the sushi competition that she snuck into as a Hispanic woman by disguising her name. It seems unlikely that a well-produced show, even an Internet production, would fail to properly vet its contestants.
But “Sushi” has plenty of charm and makes some interesting choices along the way. In a Hollywood movie, Aki and Juana would have become romantically entangled; here, he seems more like a big brother sticking up for a sibling. He is her greatest ally, and that romance doesn’t confound their relationship is refreshing.
If you attend the Heartland Film Festival, I can think of no better movie to put your money down on than “East Side Sushi.” It’s a warm, inviting movie that entertains and inspires.