'East Side Sushi': Napa Valley Review

East Side Sushi Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Napa Valley Film Festival

East Side Sushi Still - H 2014

California fusion-cuisine feature makes for a tasty treat

Diana Elizabeth Torres and Yutaka Takeuchi co-star in Anthony Lucero’s delightful debut

Writer-director Anthony Lucero’s food-centered family dramedy serves up plenty of gentle humor to assuage the struggles of an aspiring sushi chef with a mismatched skill set. Endearing performances, accomplished low-budget filmmaking and a distinctive urban setting all add up to an appetizing offering that should entice both theatrical and ancillary buyers.

Hailing from the Mexican culinary tradition, thirty-ish single mom Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) lives with her widowed father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) in a cramped East Oakland apartment, along with her school-age daughter Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre). Working a thankless menial job with a gym cleaning crew, Juana spends most of her free time helping her dad prep and push his fruit-vending street cart, making sure Lydia remains engaged at school and skillfully preparing delicious home-cooked meals and treats. Almost on a whim, she applies for a position at Osaka Japanese restaurant in downtown Oakland and gets the job, mostly because of her extensive professional cooking experience, rather any potential compatibility with the mostly Asian staff.

Assigned to the kitchen to wash dishes and prep ingredients for the cooks, she’s drawn instead to the sushi bar and the three haughty chefs who rule their domain with calm disdain. Although women aren’t considered suitable for sushi preparation (their hands are supposedly too warm to handle the raw fish), chef Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) begins showing Juana how to prepare the daily fish deliveries after she demonstrates some impressive skills with a carving knife. Her father however, is not impressed, dismissing the food she brings home from the restaurant as inedible and pressuring her to work instead at a taqueria so that he can enjoy some more familiar leftovers.

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After a year at the restaurant, Juana is still working in the kitchen, but she’s developed her sushi-prep skills at home after closely observing the restaurant’s chefs and devised some delicious Japanese-Mexican fusion rolls that even her dad and daughter enjoy. Now fully determined to become a sushi chef despite her unconventional background, Juana attempts to apply some of her newfound expertise on the job. When Osaka’s owner Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama) discovers that she’s been prepping fish and even making basic rolls for Aki and the other chefs when the restaurant gets busy, he forbids her to assist with sushi prep despite her obvious skill and before long it seems like a showdown may be imminent.

Lucero’s first feature doesn’t break much new ground, but sticking to familiar themes allows him to tweak the template with culturally specific details that underlie the essential conflicts Juana faces in her quest to become a Mexican-American sushi chef. With a father and a boss who both reject her aspirations, Juana must confront patriarchal disapproval as well as traditional bias to develop a new culinary mindset.

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It’s a conventional story arc, but Torres is game enough, delving into the cross-cultural challenges with enthusiasm, even if her conviction occasionally appears to waver in contemplation of some of the culinary obstacles that Juana faces. Takeuchi competently holds down the sushi chef role but seems to miss out on some of the emotional shading that might have made Aki somewhat more sympathetic. Clark and Aguirre aptly provide adequate comic relief to keep potentially maudlin moments in check.

Lucero and DP Marty Rosenberg creatively leverage limited practical locations and a conventional stylistic approach to enhance the film’s modest resources and productively keep the focus on dramatic developments. Mouthwatering food photography will likely have Japanese cuisine fans quickly heading for the nearest sushi bar after watching the movie. 

Production company: Sparklight Films

Cast: Diana Elizabeth Torres, Yutaka Takeuchi, Lane Nishikawa,Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Kaya Jade Aguirre, Roji Oyama, Miyoko Sakatani

Director-writer: Anthony Lucero   

Producer: Julie Rubio

Executive producer: Anthony Lucero           

Director of photography: Marty Rosenberg  

Editor:  Ansoni Hikari 

Music: Alex Mandel


No rating, 107 minutes