It's hard not to wonder if the independent genre film scene would be exponentially better if, in order to cut their numbers, there were an objective panel of script readers who would place a 25% tax on the production of all films by first-time director / writers that are, intentionally or unintentionally, obviously indebted to Quentin Tarantino. Whether Sushi Girl's creator Kern Saxton knows it or not (and I'm inclined to think he does, based on the overall tone and style of the movie), the final product screams of his influence, landing it squarely on a heap with the hundreds and hundreds of other films produced each year with the same unmistakable footprint.
For one: overly colorful characters. Obviously, characters ought to be memorable, but not every one of them needs to have an extensive story, tic, or speech to convey that to the viewer. Sushi Girl centers on a reunion of five criminals (Tony Todd, Mark Hamill, Noah Hathaway, Andy Mackenzie, and James Duval), gathering for a meal of raw fish served on the body of a beautiful naked woman (Cortney Palm, in a terribly thankless role). Duke (Todd) has arranged the evening to interrogate Fish (Hathaway), fresh off a six-year jail stint following a botched diamond heist. Fish didn't rat on the other four men at the table, but he also didn't disclose the location of the diamonds, and everyone's itching to find out. It's a fine setup, but the fabulous flamboyance of Crow (Hamill), and a deliberately paced speech by Duke about his coal-mining father get old in a hurry. Tarantino can take the long-winded routine and make it suspenseful, and he rarely puts two showboats in the same scene; here, you just wait for a room full of bickering caricatures to get to the point. Francis (Duval) is actually the most interesting of the bunch: in order to be with his son, he's gone straight, and his stomach for torture is limited. Duval actually crafts a character the viewer can invest in, because he's simple, honest, and not weighed down by other business.
Other scenes can't be tied so closely to Tarantino, but still feel derivative: the "ramp up, back down" nature of the torture inflicted upon Fish is faintly effective, but comes off more like an affectation of suspense cutting than an actual understanding of it. Any tension in these moments come from the audience's familiarity with how a scene like this is traditionally put together rather than a strong sense of the two characters' motivations and inclinations. A flashback structure is unremarkable: the film cuts between the interrogation and the day of the robbery. As both stories are being unnecessarily drawn out, the return of one thread simultaneously yanks us unwillingly away from a story that perpetually feels like it's gonna go somewhere to a thread we're reminded is still dragging on. Other elements feel tossed in out of an odd sense of obligation: in a small role, Jeff Fahey tells the characters, "You don't know who you're robbing!" when it never actually comes up, and I almost laughed when a Mexican standoff develops right on schedule.
Worst of all, however, is Sushi Girl's big reveal. I'm not going to spoil it, but again, any effectiveness in the payoff comes from Saxton and his crew's ability to replicate similar moments they've seen in other movies. A good twist re-contextualizes everything the viewer's seen into a different picture than they had before, but Saxton's big reveal is basically just "information we didn't know," weakened by the fact that Sushi Girl is clearly going to be a movie with a twist right from the beginning. There isn't enough character for the ending to to be emotionally meaningful (although everyone involved does their best), and it requires a fatal reliance on chance and coincidence, particularly the last bit of action right before the curtain is pulled back.
The irony of the Tarantino influence is that so many of the films that have been made as a result don't seem to understand the elements that make his movies work. They're also the same elements that fuel any great film: strong characters, a well-written story, and a memorable execution. When it comes to making movies, QT's love for other people's movies comes second to his understanding of them, and the way they function. For him, films are not just pieces from which a line or shot will be borrowed, but Swiss watches within which he has studied every gear and spring. Saxton's film is more than basically competent in ways that many other post-Pulp Fiction genre pictures aren't: the action is always clearly blocked, the performances are professional (and some even good), and the movie is basically watchable -- despite a level of impatience, it's not a chore to get through. Still, as a first-time feature filmmaker, what's most strongly conveyed by Sushi Girl isn't what Saxton has learned from his influences, but simply who and what they are.
magnolia brings Sushi Girl to Blu-Ray with the same attractive artwork by Manthos Lappas that graced one of the movie's posters. Black provides a good backdrop for scarlet and yellow lettering, and the back cover is graced with one of the other posters depicting the cast seated at a long table. The disc is packaged in a standard Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Sushi Girl's 2.40:1 1080p AVC transfer is like an Olympic routine that nails every move but fails to stick the landing. Color, in the sushi restaurant scenes, is eye-poppingly vivid (other scenes are de-saturated, but only intentionally). Fine detail is incredible, rendering the finest contours of Cortney Palm's exposed skin. Yet, contrast hounds the picture from beginning to end. The film opens with an obvious, glaring display of banding, which rears its head throughout. Occasionally, digital lighting will make the image appear hazy and flatter than intended. A low-budget production like this has technical limitations, sure, but the niggling distractions on this one do detract a little from the experience.
A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also pretty superb, but limitations of the production poke their head in a little more aggressively here. More than once during the film, a line or sound effect noted by the subtitles is hardly audible. Some of the missing dialogue seems like material that would normally have been fixed during the looping process, but I guess either the actors were unavailable, re-recording was deemed to expensive, or (since none of the lost dialogue is crucial), the whole thing was simply ignored. That said, this sound pretty good for a low-budget film, with nice atmosphere in the dilapidated restaurant, and more action opportunities in the flashbacks. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Two audio commentaries kick things off, the first with director / co-writer / producer / editor Kern Saxton, co-writer / producer Destin Pfaff, producer Suren M. Seron, and producer Neal Fischer, and the second with Saxton and actors Tony Todd, Noah Hathaway, Andy Mackenzie, James Duval, and David Dastmalchian. A sampling of the two tracks reveals the expected: more of a technical approach on the former commentary, relating to casting, production headaches, planning, the cinematography, budgetary concerns, etc., and more of a laid-back atmosphere on the second, with more anecdotes and joke-cracking.
The video features kick off in style with "Sushi Girl: A Documentary" (59:55, HD), a chronological fly-on-the-wall documentary filled with on-set interviews and B-roll. Although I wasn't a huge fan of Sushi Girl, and wasn't excited by the idea of watching an hour-long documentary on the making of the movie (the DVD / Blu-Ray reviewer's number one torture: heaps of extras on the films you dislike), this casual look behind the scenes kept catching my interest, especially in the way it dives happily into the less glamorous, daily-grind aspects of filmmaking. These are supplemented by some "Producer's Diaries" (7:22, HD), which are more aggressive and jokey, and some "Cast and Crew Interviews at the International Premiere" (13:50, HD), shot at the FantAsia Film Festival (the inclusion of the same intro in front of each one gets old fast). Although these are not as fun or insightful as the central doc, if you've rented the disc and don't have time to devote another hour, these shorter extras provide faster behind-the-scenes tidbits.
Two alternate scenes (2:22, HD) are also included (an alternate "reveal" and an alternate ending), followed by a lengthy selection of outtakes (17:00, HD). The differences in the alternate scenes are extremely minor, but some of the bloopers are worth a chuckle. "Fake TV Commercials ala Sushi Girl" (3:40, SD) are three fun viral commercials for the movie, designed to look as if they were sourced from an old VHS tape. One of them even features a Sonny Chiba fight scene!
Trailers for Deadfall, Nature Calls, John Dies at the End, The ABCs of Death, and a promo for axsTV play before the main menu. Four original theatrical trailers for Sushi Girl are also included, as well as music video for Send the Sages' "Victories and Consequences" (3:53, HD), and three galleries, containing poster and promo artwork, on-set photos, and storyboards, round out the disc.
Sushi Girl is a middling movie, but there are some interesting aspects: the eclectic cast, decent budget cinematography, reasonably effective use of basically a single location. I also really liked the hour-long documentary on the making of the movie, which is a slightly more unvarnished, honest look at the the way independent movies are made than some BTS pieces. I'll concede that the disc might be worth a rental...if only out of the hope someone might learn why the film itself doesn't work.
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