According to doc, sushi's a victim of its own appeal

'Sushi: A Global Catch'

'Sushi: A Global Catch' (November 15, 2012)

The first several minutes of "Sushi: The Global Catch" (at the Siskel Film Center through Wednesday) lure you in with a quiet but detailed look at the extensive training required of sushi chefs in Japan.

The seven-year apprenticeship is not for dilettantes; the first three years are spent washing dishes and making deliveries. It takes two years alone to learn how to prepare rice. By year five, an apprentice is allowed to work in the back kitchen, preparing platters and sushi rolls for delivery. It is only in the seventh year that he "serves customers by himself," as one chef explains, "and offers conversation, entertaining them with flattery and jokes."

Along the way, documentary filmmaker Mark Hall sprinkles in small but memorable bits of trivia. Wasabi, which has bacteria-killing properties, was originally paired with sushi because of less-than-ideal sanitary conditions that existed when sushi first emerged.

Gradually, though, Hall turns his attention to Japan's enormous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, where the catch is offloaded and sold to brokers who use hand signals much like traders in the pits of the Chicago Board Options Exchange. The subject of the film finally comes into focus when you realize these brokers are buying bluefin tuna, a rapidly disappearing species due to high demand.

"It seems to be the ne plus ultra of fish for sushi," Hall told me when we talked this week. But why this fish, as opposed to any other? I suggested it might have something to do with aesthetics: Unlike most fish, tuna has a robust consistency, and because of its color, it almost resembles meat. If you're going to eat uncooked fish, bluefin tuna looks and smells pretty delectable.

"All of those things play a role," Hall said. "It's the entry point for a lot of people trying sushi for the first time. It's not a fishy-tasting fish. It doesn't have a smell, like mackerel, which has a very distinct smell. It's not weird like sea urchin, which is kind of like gelatin. It isn't threatening, and I think that's one of the reasons that it's become so popular."

It was during a trip to Poland a few years ago that Hall noticed an unexpected sushi trend. "Everywhere I went, the Polish people I worked with were obsessed with sushi. It started making me think about the supply-chain issues; how the fish was getting to these land-locked sushi bars in small towns in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe."

Halfway through his first visit to Tokyo to gather footage, however, "we kept hearing more and more about the fact that fish used in sushi was getting harder to find. And you weren't seeing large tuna anymore because there was so much fishing going on. Everyone, from the people at the market buying the fish to the wholesalers to marine biologists, are all attributing this to the popularity of sushi around the world — that tuna is being overfished to the point of commercial extinction, at least. So that's where I went with the film."

Among those Hall talked to was Mike Sutton, who heads the Center for the Future of the Oceans in California. "We used to the call the bluefin tuna the Porsche of the oceans," Sutton says in the film, "because it's as fast as a Porsche, they're as big as a Porsche — they get up to 1,500 pounds — and it's as expensive as a Porsche, because one fish goes for more than $100,000 U.S."

"The sushi industry is a very profitable industry, and it has certainly grown faster in the United States than it has ever grown in Japan," Hall told me. China is the big concern right now, where sushi, and, therefore, tuna, is becoming increasingly popular.

What to do about that looming problem is debated in the film by environmental activist Casson Trenor, who advocates a complete end to bluefin as a sushi staple, and Alistair Douglas, a scientist employed by an Australian-based commercial fishing operation, who warns that complete abstinence is unrealistic given growing market demand.

Trenor (who will be at Friday's screening for a post-show discussion) can be a polarizing figure; he takes the hard-sell approach, and though his points are intelligent, he tends to express himself in terms that don't always take into account the forces of capitalism. That said, he's put his money where his mouth is as the proprietor of Tataki, a sushi restaurant in San Francisco that goes to great lengths to serve only sustainable sushi made from other species of fish. (Hall's camera captures a waitress explaining the provenance of each fish on the menu, and the moment is perhaps unintentionally reminiscent of a "Portlandia" sketch spoofing organic fetishists.)

Meanwhile, Hall is hoping to secure a January screening in China.

"It's very difficult because any little minor discussion of China in a negative way is something they blackball," Hall said. "But I think they need to be a part of this discussion too. I'm not saying China is this evil 800-pound gorilla; what's happening is that they want the things that we've enjoyed as their wealth increases, and I don't blame them. But just the sheer numbers of people in China — and they love sushi. I mean, it's just taking off over there; it's huge. So it's another part of the puzzle."

Hall is also working on a sequel of sorts to the film, about the closure of the Tsukiji fish market, which is supposed to take place next year.

"It's the most popular tourist attraction in Tokyo, and they want to move it to an artificial island that used to house the Japan Gas Corp.," he said. "It's a toxic waste dump. It's the same old story. The city of Tokyo owns the land where the present fish market is — it's worth about $8 billion, and it's right next to the Ginza district, which is one of the most expensive parcels of land, very upscale, very high-end — and they want to turn the fish market into condos and office buildings."

"Sushi: The Global Catch" screens Friday-Wednesday at the Siskel Film Center. Environmental activist Casson Trenor will speak after the 7:45 p.m. screening Friday, which will also include "sustainable" sushi snacks from Dirk's Fish & Gourmet Shop. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.

'Twilight' co-star in Chicago

Sporting one of the more unfortunate brunette-to-blond transformations on cinematic record as Bella's father-in-law in the "Twilight" films, Peter Facinelli comes to the Chicago area this weekend for the premiere of "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2."

Facinelli, who also plays an agreeably dopey doctor on Showtime's "Nurse Jackie," will be at the Hollywood Blvd Cinema in Woodridge (Friday and Sunday) and the Hollywood Palms Cinema in Naperville (Saturday). Go to atriptothemovies.com.

Green on screen

This week two men were charged with manslaughter in connection with the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil company also announced it will pay a $4.5 billion settlement to the government, which makes the upcoming screening of "Beyond Pollution" as timely as ever. The documentary is a firsthand investigation of what happened and why.

Chicago Filmmakers screens the film at 8 p.m. Friday at the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago. Several of the filmmakers, including director Barker White, will be on hand for a post-show discussion. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.

Singalong R. Kelly?

The Music Box Theatre takes its singalong series to new tongue-in-cheek proportions with a singalong screening of R. Kelly's multichapter music video compilation known as "Trapped in the Closet," about a one-night stand gone horribly wrong. Midnight Friday. Go to musicboxtheatre.com/events.

nmetz@tribune.com

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