Thanks to 50 years of relatively benign colonial rule contrasted against 40 years of Nationalist martial law, Taiwan has a lasting cultural and historical affinity for Japan. This connection translates over to the island’s cinema. As New Wave directors flourished and focused on more local narratives after martial law’s end, they provided a more overt embrace of Japan through movies like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Cafe Lumiere. However, it wasn’t until Wei Te-sheng’s 2007 blockbuster Cape No. 7 that the Taiwan-Japan cinematic connection came into vogue. Since then, films like Seediq Bale and Kano have opened to wide reception with storylines focused on the Japanese dimension to Taiwan’s identity. Now, Pan Chih-yuan’s Sashimi attempts to seize upon this trend — albeit with its own, rather unusual, flavor.
Anyone who’s seen Cape No. 7 might notice that Sashimi operates on the same high-level premise: through some epistolary means, a Taiwanese man becomes connected with a Japanese woman who evokes the past. However, the devil’s in the details. While Cape No. 7‘s postal catalysts are undelivered love letters from a Japanese teacher to his Taiwanese former student during the colonial period, Sashimi‘s are postcards written from a lonely Taiwanese man to a Japanese porn star in the modern day.
Ming (Lee Kang-sheng, of Vive L’Amour), a sushi chef who runs a restaurant-cum-inn in Yilan, watches porn to get over his divorce. He pleasures himself to one actress in particular: Natsumi Asano (Yui Hatano, an actual porn star). Every time Asano releases a new film, Ming mails her a postcard. There’s a reason Ming follows her so religiously: she’s a proxy for his Japanese ex-wife, Yoshiko. In fact, though Ming’s postcards might arrive at Asano’s physical location, their content is addressed to Yoshiko.
Asano has her own issues. On the day of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, her boyfriend kills himself and leaves her with nothing except a HIV infection. Distraught over her mortality, she doesn’t know what to do — until her agent Tamura suddenly presents her with a collection of Ming’s postcards and persuades her to find him in Taiwan.
When Asano arrives in Yilan, she kicks off a mellowed flurry of activity within Ming’s small world. His only waitress Hsiao-mi becomes jealous; she’s been sleeping with Ming in exchange for free sushi. One of his regulars starts taking a drunken interest in Asano. Even the local porn DVD vendor becomes curious and tries his own tricks. But at the center of it all are Ming and Asano themselves: he wants to relive his past marriage, and she wants to experience what it feels like to truly be loved.
Cross-cultural exchange, loneliness, divorce, jealousy, terminal illness, the metaphor of “raw flesh” ready for interpretation across multiple forms — Sashimi is ripe with artistic and dramatic potential, but squanders it. The film’s premise is rich, but challenging to execute upon. By thrusting porn front-and-center as its most unique point, Sashimi walked a fine line between artistic and uncomfortable; unfortunately, it fell over to the “uncomfortable” side.
On this front, the film’s ambition is its main failing. Sashimi‘s scope encompasses not only Ming and Asano’s stories, but also subplots centered around minor characters like a local developmentally disabled boy and Asano’s agent Tamura. Those subplots create two negative effects. One, they use up time that would be better spent developing the main characters. Two, their careless insertion makes plot progression seem rather haphazard and choppy. In combination, those factors mean that when Ming chooses to take certain actions during the movie, they seem sudden, unjustified, and ultimately quite creepy — especially when the filter of “oh, this is a movie about people who watch and make porn” gets applied.
I came into Sashimi excited by its unique and provocative premise. However, my interest did not last long. Absent proper character development and smooth plot transitions, the film went limp, doomed by the very premise meant to invigorate it. Instead of leaving behind the evocative, sublime taste of its namesake, Sashimi became just another pile of cold fish.
Sashimi (Chinese: 沙西米)–Taiwan. Directed by Pan Chih-Yuan. First released April 2015. Running time 1hr 26min. Starring Lee Kang-sheng, Yui Hatano, Teresa Daley, and Iguchi Daiyu.