As this reviewer found out, East Side Sushi is not a film to be watched when hungry, unless you want those stomach rumbles to become increasingly severe.
Anthony Lucero’s feature length directorial debut is a celebration of food from all corners of the globe, but more than that, it's also a celebration of the people and cultures that come from those many different places and fuse together to create wondrous combinations.
We follow the story of Juana Martinez (Diana Elizabeth Torres), a young Latina mother from Oakland as she journeys from street cart vendor to accomplished and celebrated sushi chef. A single mother of Mexican heritage who has moved to the United States, she discovers a love of Japanese cooking and her culinary creations infuse the traditions of Mexican street food and refined Japanese cuisine to create something new, unique and delicious. She's not just following her dream but also trying to provide a stable future for her young daughter Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre). However, before reaching her goal, Juana must overcome both her father’s scepticism of Japanese food as well her employer’s perception that women do not belong in the highly skilled and disciplined environment of a sushi bar.
Over the course of East Side Sushi, Juana learns that she must embrace and respect the traditions of the past, from all cultures, while at the same time challenging them to evolve and accept inspiration from other areas. Through both his characters and the use of food, Lucero presents the viewer with a vision of the world where differences should be celebrated and cultures should be unafraid to intermingle and challenge the barriers set before them by traditional society and, as the film’s protagonist, Juana serves as a microcosm of the message at its heart. The fact that this message is delivered in such a relatable manner makes it all the more admirable.
Even with its applaudable core messages of cultural integration and social progress, East Side Sushi is not without fault. Simplistic mise-en-scène and camerawork gravitate towards the visually dull and dreary, the primary exception being food preparation scenes, which contain more movement and colour. Similarly, while Juana is a very likeable character, her screen presence never magnetises, making it difficult to thoroughly invest in her success. The film's main course, a sushi chef competition, fails to invoke any real sense of tension, and the plot occasionally serves up a cheese platter. An early scene involving an armed robbery is a particularly prominent culprit.
Ultimately East Side Sushi is an enjoyable and easy to watch piece of light entertainment. Its warm hearted message is a relatable and even important one for the contemporary world. So perhaps Lucero should be applauded for his optimism? Yet, you won't find epic theatre here just a believable everyday story. One does not have to achieve monumental things in order to achieve happiness and a place in the world.
Words by Jon Heywood