I love movies. I love food. How pleased am I when I find ways to happily bring these interests together? Almost as pleased as I feel about the idea of Mexican/Japanese fusion cuisine, conveniently depicted in this week’s pick.
East Side Sushi
A Latina single mother struggling to support her daughter is determined to master the art of sushi despite the objections of…I mean, pretty much everyone.
Juana is a single mother living with her father in Oakland, California. She is far from living the dream as she works odd jobs trying to make ends meet and fund her daughter’s education. The family’s main source of income seems to be a fruit cart–that is, until one day Juana is robbed at gunpoint.
Disheartened and quite shaken, Juana’s luck takes a turn when she stumbles across a Help Wanted sign hanging in a sushi restaurant. Though she’s a talented cook and has some serious skill with knives, the help needed is for a kitchen assistant–cleaning, washing dishes, making rice, and doing some other food prep.
It’s not long before Juana gets a chance to show off her talents when the kitchen is short-staffed, and sushi chef Aki begins to respect her expertise. Though initially Juana claims she has tried sushi and didn’t like it, she gives it another try and falls in love with the flavors. Her father and daughter are less than thrilled, however, when Juana begins making sushi at home instead of their usual Mexican fare. Juana’s father in particular remains stubbornly critical of her venture into Japanese cooking and her ambitions to master sushi.
Even as Juana makes progress at home, she is held back by the traditional views of the restaurant owner, Mr. Yoshida, and several of the sushi chefs, who claim women’s hands are too warm to make sushi(…?). However, with the encouragement of Aki, she begins to observe the sushi chefs and pick up their techniques. When the restaurant is down a sushi chef, Juana impresses Aki with her sushi making, but must create her sushi rolls in the stock room, out of sight of patrons and Mr. Yoshida.
On her own, Juana decides to enter a local sushi competition to prove her skills and perhaps win money for her daughter’s education. At last, Juana’s father begins to support her efforts as he helps her film a video submission. It doesn’t hurt at all that he gets to taste test her fusion sushi rolls, featuring jalapeños and poblano peppers.
Her sushi skills ever on the rise, Juana tires of receiving no recognition for her work and decides to make sushi up front with the other chefs. Of course, this is not received well by Mr. Yoshida or by the bullshit white dudes who complain about the lack of authenticity. After being denied the option to even apply for the open sushi chef position at the restaurant, Juana chooses to quit rather than endure the disrespect.
Once again working low-paying jobs, barely scraping by, and with no passion for sushi or any other kind of cooking, Juana feels utterly without hope. Remember that sushi competition, though? Maybe an opportunity will present itself when a mysterious envelope arrives from the organizers of the competition.
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
As a somewhat belated disclaimer, I’m such a sucker for the formulaic following your dreams, overcoming adversity, feel-good film…especially if there’s food involved. This does follow that formula pretty closely, but brings a unique perspective and presents its characters with nuance and care. There’s a slow build, but the emotional impact of the film suddenly creeps up–when Juana’s father finally comes around (and gives her one of her mother’s scarves for luck), I had so many feels. Diana Elizabeth Torres is an absolute gem as Juana, whose quiet determination, compassion, and curiosity come across beautifully on screen.
The film is very interested in questions of authenticity in the restaurant world, and to what extent those ideas are used to maintain the status quo. In one of Juana’s rare outbursts, she points out the hypocrisy inherent in the sushi restaurant’s illusion of authenticity, as well as the irony that so many Latinos are behind the scenes in every great restaurant yet just one in public view is not accepted.
I also love the subtle yet sweet relationship between Juana and Aki. Really all they do together is make and eat food, so I feel they have the ideal relationship. Aki is adorable, supportive, and incredibly proud of Juana’s successes. Refreshingly, the romance is very subtle and not at all the focus of this film. It’s nice for Juana to have someone who’s always in her corner, though, and who gifts her with beautiful sharp knives.
However, I’m extremely angry that I can’t actually try any of the mouthwatering combinations Juana creates during this film. Streaming this film should also come with at least a couple of sushi rolls.