My latest foodie film recommendation came from an unlikely source.
My friend Dilia Suriel is a living, breathing version of IMDb when it comes to recommending movies, especially those little sleepers that often slip by unnoticed. But this was a film about sushi and sushi’s about eating rice and rice puts on weight and I just couldn’t imagine Dilia liking anything to do with anything that puts on weight.
The first time I met Dilia she was on a diet. The second time I met Dilia she was on a diet. The last time I met Dilia she gave me a draft of her new book. It’s called The Thin Woman’s Metabolism and, yes, it’s about losing weight but, in Dilia’s words, “from an in-depth scientific perspective and an evolved consciousness”. All I know is quite a few centimetres have disappeared from her waist since that first time I met Dilia Suriel.
The film Dilia recommended was released in 2015 as East Side Sushi. Despite some very respectable reviews and picking up a pile of awards at festivals, it never found much of a theatre audience (no action scenes, no bums on seats, is Hollywood’s explanation). In fact, East Side Sushi all but disappeared until HBO picked it up. Then, last year, the film was re-released as Sushi a la Mexicana, I presume to try and attract a Latino audience, and it started to get a few shout-outs from the websites that do those what’s new on Netflix posts.
The film is about Juana, a single Mexican-American mother who struggles to operate the family fruit cart in a part of Oakland, California where I feared to ever tread when I lived across the bay. After being violently robbed at the cart, she applies and gets a job in the kitchen of the very male dominated world of sushi.
“If I walked into a taqueria and I saw a bunch of Asians cooking the food, I’d probably think twice.”
“Sure. Maybe. But, if that same taqueria had all Latino workers and just one Asian…one Asian…would that be okay?”
You can guess where the plot is going as Juana starts to learn, like and love Japanese cuisine but you’re never quite sure if she will ever emerge from out of those slim swinging doors and stand proudly at a sushi bar, a place where, in my hundreds of visits to Japanese restaurants, I have never seen a single woman and definitely no one who looks as good as lead actress, Diana Elizabeth Torres.
East Side Sushi/Sushi a la Mexicana was written, directed and produced by first-timer Anthony Lucero in an impressive debut. In an interview with Stephen Harber in SF Weekly, Lucero said “What is authentic food? Is it where you’re from? Is it your sex? To make Thai food, do you need to be from Thailand, or is that something that’s learned? Can you put your own spin on it. Can somebody from Poland make good Mexican food? Is it learned, or is it in their blood? I like people thinking about that.”
As we ponder whether Juana will ever emerge from the kitchen, she enters a contest, “Champions of Sushi”, to prove that she can slice and shape with the best of them. As I watched her journey to the televised finals, I realized what I really like about Sushi a la Mexicana. Despite Diana Elizabeth Torres’ delightful Hayekesque features and despite the film being all about the sexes, there is absolutely no recognition of the physical differences between male and female, not even a rice grain of sex anywhere, anytime.
Though there are lots of shots of nori and maki that make you wish you were wielding chopsticks, this is as much a feel-good as it is a foodie film, a movie about a Latina trying to make it in two very different worlds, the United States and Japan. I think Dilia Suriel might have once been a Latina trying to make it in big city America. I think that might be one of the reasons why she may have recommended it.
You’ll find Sushi a la Mexicana on Netflix Mexico. You’ll find more about Dilia Suriel and her weight loss philosophy at www.thinwomanbrain.com.