I was pulled into the story and remained entranced throughout the entire movie at the Heartland Film Festival. The acting was very good, the storyline engaging, the dialogue witty. East Side Sushi is a light-hearted look at a serious subject: a woman trying to follow her dreams, a culture bent on not allowing that.
Juana, living with her father and daughter in Oakland, turns out to be pretty good with a knife—for cooking. After being attacked manning her father’s fruit cart, she looks for other work to supplement her income from working at a local gym. A help wanted sign calls to her: for a kitchen worker at a Japanese restaurant.
Juana takes the job with no intentions on making it something more. But she is a curious, go-getter of a woman. Introduced into the bewildering world of Japanese culture and food, she jumps in feet first, reading, watching, and experimenting. Her family is less than enthused with her experiments—even with the Mexican twist she gives the sushi she makes at home. But her curiosity, observation, and experiments pay off at work.
During heights of patronage at the restaurant, Juana offers to step in and help the sushi chefs make sushi. Aki, one of the more experienced chefs who had been noticing her skills and encouraging her, relents. Juana begins making sushi for customers, but in the back, away from any eyes that would not accept a female, non-Japanese sushi chef.
That is, until the owner, Mr. Yoshida, stumbles across her making sushi. Later a showdown takes place between the two of them with Juana giving an impassioned speech (one of the actress’ favorite scenes as she told us in a post-showing discussion). And then she quits. She wants more than to be a kitchen worker, one of many Latinos that support the front-facing Japanese workers in restaurants across the country.
Her struggles do not end there. Ever needing money and with her interest in being a sushi chef unabated, she enters a sushi chef competition. Her anonymous video entry (with the camera focused on her hands and the sushi, not her face) gets her into the competition—but she is almost rejected when she arrives for the filming of the competition between the four selected competitors. She is clearly female and not Japanese (though interesting, one other contestant is Korean—surnamed Kim—but no problem there).
The film highlights differences between Mexican and Japanese culture and the interplay between the two, with entertaining clashes along the way.
Diana Elizabeth Torres gives a passionate performance. She started out in Mexico, but has been making films north of the border. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for more movies starring her in leading roles.