Review: Toronto After Dark Film Festival – Sushi Girl
Sushi Girl (2012) has one fantastic moment in its overlong running time: a tightly edited, suspenseful series of beats in which two characters argue while another is about to have his teeth wrenched out of his gums. This moment shows that co-writer and director Kern Saxton is definitely talented. The rest of Sushi Girl demonstrates that he still needs to hone his skills.
The film is inspired–and that’s a polite way of putting it–by Quentin Tarantino’s overwritten love letters to exploitation cinema. I won’t explain much about the plot, since I want to offer audiences a fair chance to experience Sushi Girl for themselves. I will say that the film’s story is basically a Reservoir Dogs (1992) scenario: criminals interrogate each other to locate their missing stolen diamonds with gory results. The major difference? A naked woman, the titular Sushi Girl, is the silent witness to the proceedings. She lies on a giant table, her body covered in sushi. This image alone does lend certain moments a good sense of absurdity.
Sadly, the interesting story the filmmakers have promised isn’t delivered for several reasons. Saxton writes dialogue that attempts to capture Tarantino’s occasional gift for witty discourse. He doesn’t succeed, and worse, he’s arrogant enough to think that he has. Each scene is insultingly expository; plot details are helpfully–and slowly, oh so slowly–explained to characters in the film and, by extension, to the audience. That’s deeply condescending, and it’s like being smacked in the face for two hours straight. Furthermore, the film tries too hard to be witty, and these attempts appear as strained as possible. There isn’t a single honest laugh to be had in the entire film. The majority of the problem stems from the odd sense of naturalism Saxton attempts to create throughout Sushi Girl. While gratingly self-aware, the dialogue is used to create a feeling of comfortable familiarity amongst the characters; the intent, I suppose, is to give audiences the impression that these criminals have worked together for years. To say the least, Saxton’s attempt is unsuccessful. When the characters are assembled initially, it feels like they’re meeting each other for the first time. The actors’ overly expressive performances don’t help the film’s believability either; these characters seem less like gangsters and more like High School drama students staging their first play.
What’s most unfortunate about Sushi Girl is that it doesn’t play fair. The film concludes with a twist that’s unpredictable, but only because Saxton has completely elided some story information rather than carefully misdirecting us with it. And even though the revelation arrives with a certain punch, its impact is lessened by even more expository dialogue that sounds shockingly similar to that found in Scooby-Doo. Another problem is the film’s overall structure. Again tipping his hat a little too much to Tarantino, Saxton uses flashbacks poorly throughout to liven the proceedings. The flashbacks very rarely progress the plot, and usually aren’t well-motivated–it’s even sometimes needlessly confusing to whom certain flashbacks belong! The film’s structure is rarely anything more than an annoying gimmick that functions to pad the running time (which feels endless, by the way).
And what of Sushi Girl‘s technical merits? Sure, the film is well-shot, but not exactly visually exciting or kinetic. It is perhaps unwise to rely almost entirely on bland shot/reserve shot stylistics when the primary setting is a drab Ming Dynasty-decorated dining area. (And although a character comments on the stupidity of honouring a Japanese custom in a Chinese dining room, that doesn’t make the choice any less idiotic.) Even the flashbacks are filmed with grainy, near-monochromatic cinematography that provides little to entice the eye. The gore effects are okay, but the lighting sometimes emphasizes their lack of tangibility a little too strongly.
Was there anything positive about the Sushi Girl screening? Yes: the great symbolic short film Bydlo that preceded the main feature. In just six minutes, Bydlo offers a feast for the eyes. Shot using jaw-dropping stop-motion animation, the short is startling, eerie, and tainted by a haunting melancholy. I’m glad I saw it, for it not, the screening would have been a total bust.
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