Read two critical perspectives on EAST SIDE SUSHI by Tien-Tien L. Jong and Patricia Unterman.
We saw a wonderful Oakland-made feature film EAST SIDE SUSHI at a local festival several months ago and the audience loved it. It went on to win the Audience Award as it has continued to do at many festivals all over the country.
The movie offers a wonderful look at Oakland, shot on location at three sushi restaurants here….Coach Sushi, b-dama and Mijori as well as our favorite taco truck, Sinaloa and “the scene” in Fruitvale and around Lake Merritt.
We thought it would be interesting to ask one of San Francisco’s finest chefs and food critics, Patty Unterman and a young film critic whose work for EatDrinkFilms has generated terrific reactions, to write reviews. Additionally Risa Nye returned to ICHI Sushi to discuss East Side Sushi with its owners and that interview can be found elsewhere in this issue.
East Side Sushi is playing in theaters throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. Complete list available here.
EAST SIDE SUSHI: Adding More Options
by Tien-Tien L. Jong
East Side Sushi , the directorial debut of Anthony Lucero, belongs to a select category of “food films” that strives to capture not only an array of photogenic dishes (in this case attractively plated sushi, nigiri, and sashimi, as well as tacos, enchiladas, and fresh mangos drizzled with Valentina), but also to convey the differences and seeming incompatibilities in the two cultural traditions, and the emotions and stories, behind those dishes. Diana Elizabeth Torres stars as Juana, a young Mexican-American woman living in East Oakland who struggles to make ends meet for herself, her father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark), and her grade-school-aged daughter, Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre), by taking on a number of odd jobs, including shifts as a custodian in a gym and helping with her father’s fresh fruit cart, all with little job satisfaction and underwhelming returns.
The first shot in the film is a close-up on Juana’s alarm clock, which begins her day at 3:50 AM. From there we see that Juana has a special talent for preparing food quickly and efficiently, through creative shots of fruit for her father’s cart being sliced and rolled in such a way as to evoke parallels with sushi-making. Her father stresses that Juana could excel in a taqueria, but that’s a path she’s been down before, which Juana sees as a dead end when she would prefer to keep her options open for herself and her daughter. Walking home one day from work, Juana passes a modest Japanese restaurant, and when she glimpses plates of elegantly prepared sushi through the window, she begins to imagine a different life for herself and so makes the decision to change her own path. She applies for and accepts a job working in the back of the kitchen, where her responsibilities are initially limited to washing dishes, cleaning, and lifting heavy bags of rice.
One day when short-staffed, sushi chef Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) pulls Juana from her assigned tasks to assist him with some food prep instead. Recognizing both Juana’s competency and curiosity about sushi, Aki begins teaching her more about each step of the process, from how to select the best fish to how to appropriately season sushi rice. These scenes charmingly articulate the challenge and excitement of learning how to cook a new kind of cuisine for the first time, as well as the unsettling and comical experiences of working in an unfamiliar kitchen. East Side Sushi manages to show cooking as a lovely process of both discovery and experimentation that will feel relatable to anyone who has ever experienced firsthand the surprise and gratification of making a foreign recipe one’s own. But as Juana’s interest in sushi grows into a passion, her new ambitions—to work in the front of the house as a sushi chef—are confronted by tradition, most directly in the form of the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), who refuses to consider Juana for the role given her race, gender, and lack of formal training.
Tradition is a central theme in East Side Sushi , which manifests not only in the rigidity of roles in the Japanese restaurant, but also (more gently) in the questions Juana’s father poses to his daughter in their own non-traditional home. Juana’s identity as a single mother gives her a certain flexibility and finesse to navigate within the boundaries set by tradition, and the story is unabashedly inspiring in its focus on a female character who doesn’t allow tradition to circumscribe the limits of her ambition. With the introduction of a reality cooking show competition in the film’s third act, Juana increasingly begins to resemble the Rocky of the sushi world, but the focus remains on Juana’s single-mindedness on changing her life by bringing her dreams a little closer to reality. Like many other food films, the pretty dishes on display in East Side Sushi belie a more complex human story. While most of the scenes in the film involve characters preparing, engaging with, talking about, or sharing food, the crux of Juana’s story is about the fulfillment that can come from seizing opportunities when they’re offered to you, as well as creating your own possibilities, even in environments that are otherwise indifferent or hostile to your thriving.
Yet even as the film is critical of the limits of tradition, East Side Sushi also expresses an admirable reverence for traditional methods and customs which gives the film a more measured and sophisticated perspective on the issue of tradition than a less nuanced film might. When Juana is asked if she believes that she is “improving on sushi,” she considers the question carefully before responding, “No. Sushi in its traditional form is beautiful….I don’t think I am improving, but just adding more options.“ This counter-perspective, for the significance and value of tradition, is also welcome in a film about making sushi, an activity where precision in following instructions and steps in tasks such as seasoning rice can be of great importance (as Juana discovers in one of the funny scenes of her early failed home-cooking experiments). As both a food film and a story about a woman forging her own path against traditional attitudes and expectations, East Side Sushi is hearty and gratifying.
In a former life, Tien-Tien Jong worked as the Director of the Dartmouth Film Society and as a coordinator for the shorts division of the Telluride Film Festival. She loves animation, silent film, and film noir, and has a soft spot for ballet and opera in British, French and American films from the 1940s-’60s. Her favorite theaters are the beautiful Paramount in Oakland and the Castro in San Francisco.
EAST SIDE SUSHI: A True Cook’s Story
by Patricia Unterman
A couple of years ago I stood outside a branch of Din Tai Fung in a shopping center in Arcadia, California, waiting for a table. Din Tai Fung is a Taipei tea house famous for xiao long bao, a delicate Shanghai dumpling with a gossamer noodle wrapper and a pure ground pork filling suspended in umami-concentrated broth. These quarter-size dumplings are a culinary miracle and almost impossible to make well. When you bite into one—they arrive lethally hot from the steamer—you get a gush of the broth as the wrapper and pork melt in your mouth.
This LA county Din Tai Fung has a windowed kitchen, and when my number was finally called I walked by it and noticed that every single cook was Hispanic. I went crazy, especially after traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles and fighting an hour of freeway traffic just to eat authentic Din Tai Fung xiao long bao. But guess what? These Shanghai dumplings served in the San Gabriel Valley made by Mexican cooks were sublime. They tasted even better that the ones I’d just had in Taipei.
I thought about this revelation as I watched the adorable East Side Sushi , a film about a young mother living in Latino East Oakland trying to make ends meet. She and her dad run a fruit cart, among other jobs, but Juana, under-played by lithesome Diana Torres, has had it. She’s sick of getting her daughter up at 4 a.m. because she has to set up the cart, she’s sick of the work and sacrifice, she’s sick of getting mugged. But she’s smart, graceful, athletic, strong, fast, self-confident—in other words she has the makings of a true cook. She’s driven to learn yet shy outside of her culture. Juana’s character captures the persona of the hidden Latino in the back of the kitchen, the people who actually turn out most of the food in the best restaurants in America.
She notices a help-wanted sign on the front of a sushi restaurant and improbably convinces the Japanese owner to hire a woman and a Latina.
So the fairy tale begins. Everyone in the theater knows what will happen, but the joy of watching the story unfold with such charm and insightful detail has made East Side Sushi the audience favorite at no less than twelve film festivals where it’s been shown.
The most fun is watching the representation of cross-cultural awakening at many levels—generation, class, gender and the senses. The sensual in any art form grabs us only if it’s convincing, and that’s what happens here, thanks to the brilliantly cast Latino and Japanese cast and clear-headed direction of Anthony Lucero. The ethnic clash between East Oakland (taco trucks, fruit carts, street life) and the tony Lakeshore District (sushi bars, demanding patrons) comes across with documentary-like physical detail.
Readers of EatDrinkFilms must be accustomed to leaving a movie hungry. By the end of East Side Sushi you’ll be ravenous. You need to find a sushi bar immediately, but what you’re really going to crave are fat, fresh-chile-swirled pinwheels of Juana’s Mayan Sun Rolls. If you watch the movie carefully you’ll be able to create one yourself—deferred gratification, but a big compliment to the film.
Patricia Unterman is the chef/co-owner of the Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco.She also was the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner and writes about food and restaurants on her website UntermanonFood.com. Her San Francisco Food Lover’s Pocket Guide is available on IndieBound and Amazon.
Click here for Risa Nye’s East Side Sushi interview/review with ICHI Sushi’s Erin and Tim Archuleta and here for Eat My Shorts short feature by East Side Sushi director Anthony Lucero in issue 73 of EatDrinkFilms.
East Side Sushi opens Friday, September 18, 2015 at
Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco
Grand Lake Theater in Oakland
Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley
Camera 12 in San Jose
Smith Rafael Theatre in San Rafael
Maya Cinemas in Pittsburg
Laemmle Noho in North Hollywood
Sundance Sunset in West Hollywood
AMC Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park
Cinepolis in Pico Rivera
Digital Gym in San Diego
AMC Orange in Orange
Maya Cinemas in Salinas
Maya Cinemas in Bakersfield
Opens Friday, September 25, 2015 at
Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol in Sebastopol
The Frida Cinema in Santa Ana
Maya Cinemas in Fresno (tentative)
For more openings check: http://www.eastsidesushifilm.com/media.htm
The Director and Actors will appear at the following selected screenings:
San Francisco Bay Area
Director Anthony Lucero will do Q&As after these showings:
*Friday 18th, Elmwood, Berkeley – 2:50pm
*Friday 18th, Grand Lake, Oakland – 7:30pm
*Saturday 19th, Camera 12, San Jose – 3:45
*Saturday 19th, Sundance Kabuki, San Francisco – 7:20
Los Angeles Q&As following screenings:
*Friday 18th, Cinepolis Pico Rivera – 7:15pm (Lead actors Diana Elizabeth Torres and Yutaka Takeuchi)
*Saturday 19th, Laemmle Noho 7- 7:00pm (Diana Elizabeth Torres and Yutaka Takeuchi)
*Sunday 20th, AMC Monterey Park – 3:00pm (Diana Elizabeth Torres, Yutaka Takeuchi plus director Anthony Lucero)
*Sunday 20th, Sundance Sunset 7:00pm (Diana Elizabeth Torres, Yutaka Takeuchi plus director Anthony Lucero)
Listen to Director Anthony Lucero on KQED Forum.