East Side Sushi, Anthony Lucero’s Cinematic Homage to Oakland

Oaklander's film premiers in Bay Area theaters with one-night stand at The New Parkway on March 22, 2014.


Jauna (Diana Elizabeth Torres), a Chicana single mother, is the star of East Side Sushi.


One winter morning in 2007, Anthony Lucero was eating French toast in an Alameda greasy spoon when a shiver of empathy ran through him. Behind the food-spattered kitchen door, a young Latino bent like Sisyphus over a mountain of dirty dishes, trying to make a dent in the steamy mass. Lucero, a recent San Francisco State University film school graduate and himself Chicano, was pondering his next step in life and thought: What would my dreams be if I were him?

Seven years later, Lucero answers that question in his first feature-length film, East Side Sushi, premiering this month at Bay Area film festivals and at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater for one night on March 22 at 5:30 p.m. The film, which Lucero wrote, directed, edited, and financed, is about Juana, a young Chicana and single mother who tends a fruit cart in East Oakland, dreaming of a better life. (Lucero chose a female protagonist for the film.) One day, Juana sees a Help Wanted sign at a sushi restaurant and applies. As she mops and cleans, Juana, portrayed by an affecting Diana Elizabeth Torres, becomes entranced by the graceful, dance-like motions of the chefs. When she bites into her first California roll, her fate is sealed: she must master the ancient art, though its practitioners are almost exclusively Asian and male. It’s the 21st century and all things are possible, right?

Not everyone shares her enlightened views—especially the restaurant owner and her father. But Juana defies the naysayers, studies hard, and enters a sushi competition to decide her future.

East Side Sushi is an homage to East Oakland, where Lucero grew up in the 1980s, the youngest of seven children. He has chronicled the neighborhood before, most poignantly in his award-winning 2007 documentary, Angels and Wheelchairs, and believes more films should be made in the rich cultural mix of the East Bay.

“It’s a very cinematic city,” he said.

Lucero, a visual effects editor for Lucasfilm, began writing East Side Sushi in the evenings at local libraries. Once done, he put the script away, convinced he’d never have the money to produce it. That’s when his hometown came through. Film buddies offered to work for nothing, brothers and sisters cooked meals, local sushi restaurants allowed him to film after-hours for free.

“You need family and friends to make a film,” said Lucero. “This movie is a passion project for all of us.”

The film’s composer, Alex Mandel, was another unexpected gift. Mandel, whose credits include songs for the film Brave, fell in love with Lucero’s film after seeing a rough cut and offered to forego payment so that Lucero could hire an orchestra instead. Mandel was inspired by the film’s cross-cultural currents and by Lucero’s ability to bring across serious content in a tone of whimsy and magic-realism.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” said Mandel, “a fairy tale of a Mexican single mother living in Oakland.”

On a sunny January morning, Lucero sat in Oakland’s 25th Street Recording studio, mixing the final strands of music, sound effects, and dialogue. “Yesterday was the Super Bowl,” he sighed, “and the only thing I wanted to do was watch the game, drink a beer, and eat chicken wings. But that’s what it takes to do film—you have to sit down in front of your computer and ignore the sunshine.”

In the snippet of film running on the studio monitor, lush violins give voice to the longing in Juana’s eyes and transform a tale from the gritty streets of Oakland into something enchanting and universal. As she gazes through a restaurant window, we see Juana’s dream, a dream she will have to struggle for with courage and energy—and with as much dedication as her creator.


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