by C. J. Hirschfield
A Little Film Shot on Grand Avenue Continues to Win Hearts and Minds
Nine years ago, a modest independent feature film was shot in Oakland, with many scenes inside Coach Sushi on Grand Avenue. The earnest—and underfunded—filmmaker appreciated the fact that local restaurateurs (Bacheesos, Sidebar, Chop Bar) stepped up to provide food for the crew (not in the budget), and enthusiastically supported his vision to portray their city in a positive light.
Cut to 2021, when EAST SIDE SUSHI has proven itself to be the film version of the Little Engine That Could, and Oakland native and director Anthony Lucero couldn’t be more pleased. A winner of 15 awards on the festival circuit, the film will be shown on Netflix through March 13, but you can see it for free on your library’s Kanopy service, as well as on Amazon and many other streaming services.
EAST SIDE SUSHI is the story of Juana, a working-class single mom who’s determined not to let anyone stop her from achieving her goal of becoming a sushi chef. The film was shot in three locations on Grand Avenue: Coach Sushi, Mijori Sushi and The Working Body Fitness Studio. Other locations throughout the city include the Fruitvale, Piedmont Avenue and KTOP’s studios at City Hall.
Director Anthony Lucero chose not to shoot the film in Los Angeles (where he now lives), pointing to The Town’s food, culture, and unmatched diversity. He describes the film’s popularity as being a “slow burn,” driven completely by positive word of mouth. The reason? The film has heart, soul, and a sweet story to tell. It celebrates tenacity, hope, and the importance of working hard to make dreams come true. It has consistently been in the top ten list on every platform where it’s been shown—including Amazon.
And Americans are not the only ones who love this little film.
Lucero says that one day he got a call from the State Department inviting him to Japan, as part of an American Film Showcase that features U.S. microcultures. Partnering with USC, the government only selects ten or so films each year for the program. Lucero admits to having been afraid of the response he’d receive, since EAST SIDE SUSHI points out the sexism and racial discrimination exhibited by some classically-trained sushi chefs. Instead, he says, the reaction in the eight cities he visited was “fantastic.” “They loved that someone was embracing their culture and food,” he says. “They took it as a huge compliment.”
The film is so popular in India that there are plans to re-make the film there. Apparently, the working-class heroine and the focus on food both resonate within their culture as well.
And back here at home, Coach Sushi owner Binh Hau is still feeling the glow from having the restaurant’s interior and exterior prominently featured in the film. She proudly displays the film’s poster in the restaurant, and, before the lockdown, many of her customers were delighted to discover the connection to a film they so enjoyed. She says she’d love it if Lucero wanted to make a sequel in Oakland.
Sequel, no, but Lucero does want to shoot the feature film he’s currently working on in Oakland. He was developing two television shows as well as the film when the pandemic hit. “Everything blew up and went away,” he says. He lost funding for the film, but is now actively seeking new capital to shoot from the script that was a 2019 Sundance Development Track Semifinalist.
BILLY DREAMS OF BAGGING centers around a single father of a mentally and physically disabled adult son. When the father is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he realizes he won’t be able to care for his son forever, so he embarks on a plan to train him for the skills he’ll need for a path to self-sufficiency.
But Lucero did manage to have a hit production during the pandemic: his son Henry, born only a week after lockdown, and co-produced by his wife Kealohi. “He hasn’t seen much of the world so far,” Lucero says, but adds that he looks forward to visiting his family in Oakland—and Fairyland—once the world returns to some level of normalcy.
And we look forward to seeing him shoot his next film back in Oakland.
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.