Fish (Noah Hathaway) has spent six years in jail, the result of a diamond heist gone terribly wrong. On the day of his release, he's met by a silent man who ushers him into a waiting car. At the end of the ride, he meets his former partners in crime: Duke (Tony Todd), Francis (James Duval), Max (Andy Mackenzie), and Crow (Mark Hamill). This is far from a happy reunion, though, as the diamonds mysteriously went missing after the job, and Duke has a feeling that Fish knows where they are. Duke has staged an elaborate dinner for the group, the centerpiece of which is a sushi girl—a naked woman (Cortney Palm) covered in raw fish—with the intention of getting the truth out of Fish one way or another.
'Sushi Girl' is the debut feature from writer/director/editor Kern Saxton. It has all the hallmarks of a low budget debut: The bulk of the story is told at a single location, and dialogue is favored over action. Unlike many first time features, however, one thing the movie never seems is amateurish. Saxton has a sharp, methodical eye and the film unfolds slowly, through a series of long shots that emphasize performance and the moments where things are left unsaid. He allows 'Sushi Girl' to build as a slow burn, ramping up the tension as Fish continues to keep his trap shut. It's assured work that favors substance over style. When the style does come in, mainly through a few key action sequences, Saxton balances the gore expected of a grindhouse-style flick with a more Hitchockian sensibility, using cutaways effectively to suggest violence worse than they ever could have shown on screen.
Speaking of performance, 'Sushi Girl' features some very good ones. To this day I still think of 'Candyman' when I see Tony Todd, but from here on out I'll think of his turn in this flick. In particular, there is a monologue he delivers about accompanying his father to a steel mill that is probably the best acting he's ever done on screen. Mark Hamill, obviously best known as Luke Skywalker in the original 'Star Wars' trilogy, and also as the definitive voice of The Joker from 'Batman: The Animated Series', plays a character like you've never seen him before. He literally chews through the dialogue, and plays one of the more memorable torturers I've seen on film in a while. James Duval also gives a sensitive and understated performance.
And then there's Cortney Palm. A relative newcomer, 'Sushi Girl' is by far the most exposure she's yet had. And I do mean that literally. About a minute into the picture's run time, Palm (credited only as Sushi Girl) drops her robe, revealing a flawless body, and then spends the rest of the film's runtime fully nude on a table in the center of the set. But this isn't mere exploitation. In fact, it's almost the exact opposite. After a few opening jabs by the characters as they enter, Saxton purposefully ignores Palm, turning her into just another part of the scenery. He takes pains to keep her in frame most of the time, but rarely does he draw attention to her. It's rather surprising how easy it is to forget that there's a human being in frame when you're focused on the attention-grabbing male cast members. Given that she's present in almost every scene, it must have been a real endurance test. Imagine being told you've been cast in a movie with Tony Todd and Mark Hamill, but you have to spend the whole time naked on a table, staring at the ceiling and covered in raw fish. When Palm does get her time to shine she manages to steal the show, and not just because she's naked.
The movie does wear its influences on its sleeve, especially that of one Mr. Quentin Tarantino. I've heard comparisons to 'Reservoir Dogs', although the similarities are rather superficial. To my eyes, the comparisons came more from the casting of semi-forgotten actors, the title character's motivations, and the use of music. But then again, those are pretty broad strokes, and who says that Tarantino has the market cornered on getting great performances out of actors considered washed up anyway? The only direct homage is in the casting of Sonny Chiba as the sushi chef who takes the sushi girl under his wing, and an appearance by Jeff Fahey as a rather overzealous diamond fence. And the fact is that the movie is littered with references, nods, and homages, from Kurosawa's 'Rashomon', 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (along with another, more obvious Bond homage) to the works of "Beat" Takeshi Kitano and even Seijun Suzuki's oddball masterpiece 'Branded To Kill'.
Perhaps the reason I harp on the noticeable influences is because the film feels the best when said influences aren't immediately apparent. Saxton is clearly creating his own voice throughout the picture, and it can be a bit jarring when something that feels like it's from a different wheelhouse pops up. However, the film is never derivative, and subsequent viewings make it easier to reconcile those relatively few elements. The good news is that on the whole 'Sushi Girl' is a very enjoyable film from an exciting new filmmaker whose career will be one to watch going forward.
'Sushi Girl' is offered in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 in this AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. Despite the film's grindhouse influences, the movie, which was shot digitally, is free of post-production scratches, dropped frames, dirt, etc. Instead, the image presented is crisp and clear, the better to show off cinematographer Aaron Meister's at times painterly compositions. The flashback scenes do have added grain, done to differentiate those sequences that take place in the present. Contrast is a little cranked, with darks at time overpowering light, but never to the point of obscuring the image. And speaking of those blacks, they are deep, with plenty of shadow detail evident. Detail in general is excellent. You can pick out individual hairs in Noah Hathaway's scraggly beard, or identify individual pieces of sushi laid out on Cortney Palm's comely body. Fleshtones are accurate, from the browns of Tony Todd all the way to the pale whites of Ms. Palm. I did notice a few moments of banding, mainly early in the picture, but no artifacts or other blemishes. In other words, 'Sushi Girl' has a strong high def transfer.
Just for that little added oomph, Saxton and company provide us with a full-on 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. How's that for full service? Granted, 'Sushi Girl' is mainly dialogue-driven, but the filmmakers find inventive ways to make good use of all eight channels. Take a look at the scene where Max is swinging a sock full of broken glass around Fish. The whoosh of the sock as it spins in Max's hands swings from speaker to speaker, making the audience feel as if they're the one being surrounded. The ever-present rain creates a sonic backdrop and as the camera moves around the table, the voices of the various characters move accordingly around the sound field. Clarity is excellent, with tons of little sonic details on hand to enjoy. Fritz Myers' tense score is well reproduced, and the disc has great dynamic range. When the action does rear its head, its plenty loud and satisfying.
Debut films can be a dicey proposition, but writer/director/editor Kern Saxton acquits himself admirably with 'Sushi Girl'. Guiding a talented cast, including Tony Todd and Mark Hamill in career-best performances, Saxton crafts a tense and convincing thriller. Newcomer Cortney Palm shows off all of her assets in a tough role that hopefully rewards her with more work. The Blu-ray comes with excellent picture and a sumptuous 7.1 soundtrack, along with more features than you can shake your chopsticks at. 'Sushi Girl' is a promising start and I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers do next.