I saw Sushi Girl under almost perfect conditions: at the Fantasia Film Festival surrounded by more than 700 enthusiastic grindhouse film fans in the presence of the producer, director, writer and virtually the entire cast including Andy MacKenzie (Shoot ‘Em Up), James Duval (Donnie Darko), Noah Hathaway (Atreyu from The NeverEnding Story!), Michael Biehn (!!), Tony Todd (!!!), and Mark Hamill (Not! Enough! Exclamation! Marks! In! The! World!).
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How crowded was the theatre? Former Fangoria editor (and longtime friend of Fantasia) Tony Timpone was asking people in the theatre to put their hands up if the seat next to them was vacant, so we could squeeze more people in.
What we saw was a film that is completely unapologetic about its influences and its existence as a artifact of almost pure fan service beginning with its insane cast. In addition to those who were there to present the film, the cast ALSO includes Jeff Fahey, Sonny Chiba and Danny Trejo – whose machete becomes a key point plot.
The set-up of the film is that more than six years after a botched jewel heist, Fish (Noah Hathaway) is being released for good behaviour despite never snitching on his accomplices. Duke (Tony Todd) “invites” the surviving members of his gang, Crow (Mark Hamill), Max (Andy MacKenzie) and Francis (James Duval) to a party in an abandoned restaurant to welcome Fish home and discuss what happened to the jewels.
In plot structure, it is almost exactly the same as Reservoir Dogs only with the violence amped to 11. This is very deliberate and smart, any stylish crime thriller will invariably be compared to Quentin Tarantino, so why not own the comparison and use it for your own purposes? (In any case Reservoir Dogs was inspired by Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, which was in turn inspired by John Boorman’s Point Blank, an adaptation of Richard Stark’s first Parker novel The Hunter.)
A few things propel the film from being a simple derivative Tarntino pastiche: an amazing cast, a script that gives each of the hoods trapped together a meaningful role filled with great moments – Tony Todd compared his big monologue to the late Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”. The films also understands that the comparison will be made and uses it for its own purpose – in a sense it skins Reservoir Dogs and wears it like a cinematic mask.
While Tony Todd is the calm, quiet menace that drives the film, it is Mark Hamill’s psychopathic Crow that steals the show. The narrative surrounding the film seems to be that Hamill is making a film comeback, only this time as a villain. This ignores Hamill’s 20 year history of playing the voice of the Joker on TV and in films like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which in turn owed a great deal to his on-camera performance as the Trickster in the Flash TV series. (Hamill’s other forgotten villain role: Bluntman and Chronic’s arch-nemesis Cocknocker in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.)
During the Q&A after the film, Hamill denied that Crow was consciously influenced by the Joker, “except I guess that you can take Mark out of the Joker, but you can’t take the Joker out of Mark.” In appearance, Crow is more like a demonic Paul Williams, but he does share with the Joker and the Trickster a few characteristics: all three are either gay or visibly in touch with their feminine side, all three have a disturbing sense of humour and all three have a bizarre connection with pop culture. One of the ways that the film turns fan service on its head is to make Crow the fan’s voice by correcting Max’s mistaken pop culture references. This becomes all the more sinister when Crow starts singing 1970’s toothpaste jingles while reenacting sequences from Marathon Man.
The biggest difference between Reservoir Dogs and Sushi Girl is the centerpiece for Fish’s “celebration” meal, the eponymous naked girl (Cortney Palm) being used to present the sushi. As the Sushi Chef (Sonny Chiba!) tells her at the start of the film, “Remember you are a tray. You must not move. You must not make eye contact. You must not react. No matter what you see… or hear.”
The Sushi Girl’s presence adds a voyeuristic frisson to the proceedings. She is both the voyeur and the object being watched. The part required Cortney Palm being naked on set for two and a half weeks. Sushi Girl was not the kind of film (or part) that could afford a body double and she seems to be in virtually every shot, reacting to everything going around her by NOT reacting to everything going on around her.
For all the violence and casual, omnipresent nudity, it is the emotionally violent moments that truly resonate like Fish calling home after being released only to have his child not recognize his voice and his (ex?) wife hang up on him. Or Francis in the abandoned restaurant’s washroom girding himself to do the right thing, by doing the worst thing possible: sniffing cocaine off the washroom counter, using a rolled up photo of his son as a tube – a photo that has been pre-folded, meaning that it has been used for that purpose before.
In a sense, Sushi Girl is an emotional zombie film. Everyone in the abandoned restaurant is still moving and breathing even though their souls died years before.
Strongest possible recommendation.