East Side Sushi

East Side Sushi ★★★★

The most distinguishing feature of East Side Sushi is its combination of earnest, sweetly gentle storytelling with an unflinching view of what it's like to live your days in an East Oakland barrio. There's a tendency when filmmakers portray socioeconomic distress to go one of two ways; the scary urban hellhole where everyone is constantly killing each other, or the soul-crushing antechamber where people have just enough time to wallow in poverty before something even worse happens. Little danger of that from Anthony Lucero, who was born and raised in Oakland and thus knows that life, in all of its day-to-day dreariness and minor victories, happens in every neighborhood.

There's an act of fairly harrowing violence at the start of the film, when Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) is robbed at gunpoint and pistol whipped at her roadside fruit cart. After that, things are much more mellow, as Juana decides that a change in careers is needed, pointing her toward the Osaka sushi restaurant. The neighborhood in all of its aspects is still there; the ever-present police sirens in the distance as Juana stays up at night researching and practicing her new trade as an aspiring sushi chef, the bus rides, and the economic circumstances that mandate a multigenerational household. But the good stuff is there too; a cultural festival in Fruitvale, cookouts with the neighbors, and a family that's been cobbled together into a loving, supportive environment for everyone. People work hard in poor neighborhoods, and even if it's a struggle there's dignity in work, and too often that gets taken away in these narratives. Lucero sees the hustle here and presents it in a way that captures the pride that Juana takes in her work.

The story isn't flashy at all, but it doesn't need to be. The script isn't the strength here. Lucero creates a quietly pleasant, hopeful mood with his camera, and it's very easy to spend time in Juana's world of early morning fish deliveries, afternoon family meals at the restaurant and evenings spent perfecting her craft. Torres does a great job making Juana sympathetic, too, and she's engaging as the young head of her family, fierce when she needs to be but also eager to learn and excel. I like that the stakes are appropriately scaled here; too often, movies about restaurants portray people in the industry as wildly successful rock stars, when in fact most people are toiling for something hovering close to minimum wage, and even the chefs are scraping by. Juana's quest is for stability and health benefits, but also for the opportunity to put her talent to use and to do something extremely well. When the big opportunity comes her way, it's something that will enable her not to completely transform her life, but to pay for a couple years of her daughter's tuition and to check a whole bunch of things off the eternal to-do list. These are things that aren't sexy to a moviegoing audience but are extremely important to most people. Especially the chance to be good at something and be recognized for doing so.

The intersection between Latino and Asian culture is nothing new to anyone living in these neighborhoods, but it is fairly rare on screen, and it's interesting to see it documented here. This is especially prevalent in kitchens, where many Asian restaurants have a predominantly Hispanic back of the house, and the issues that Juana deals with at Osaka (maintaining appearances in the front of the house, attitudes toward women) are real ones. Likewise, anyone that's tried to convince their older Mexican relatives to try a plate of sushi will recognize a lot of the reactions that Juana meets with at first.

All of this makes for a heartfelt, charming little story, and Lucero injects some goofy fun into it toward the end with an affectionate Iron Chef mini-parody. There's not a lot out there yet from Lucero as a director, and Torres only has two credits to her name thus far. I hope to see more from both of them.

The 11s: Chicano Film