Sushi Noh Director Jayden Rathsam Hüa Talks Light and Dark in Horror and More in This Interview

Jayden Rathsam Hüa’s Sushi Noh is a gloriously grotesque horror film about a young girl (Geneva Phan) who is trapped in the care of her uncle (Felino Dolloso) in his rundown apartment. With the hope of impressing a colleague (Jodine Muir), the uncle purchases a creepy kitchen appliance with a noh mask face that pushes sushi rolls out of its mouth. Over its 18 minute runtime, Sushi Noh unsettles and disturbs, all the while proudly embracing everything that makes the horror genre the nerve wracking field that it is.

Sushi Noh has screened globally at a wealth of film festivals, taking home the prestigious ‘Audience Award’ and ‘Most Bonkers Award’ at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, before arriving at the Sydney Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Ahead of the screenings at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Jayden caught up with Andrew to discuss where the idea came from, the importance of light and shade in genre films, and how he and his crew went about creating the disturbing sushi noh machine.

Watch Sushi Noh at MIFF on Wednesday August 10th and Thursday August 18th and on MIFF Play.

Where [did] this idea came from?

Jayden Rathsam Hüa: I made this film as a part of completing my master’s program in producing at AFTRS. Doing that program put me in a position to really meditate on what kind of content I wanted to make. At that stage, I had only made comedy stuff, really silly web sketches and things. But I realised that all that I was watching was thriller and horror and supernatural stuff and so I found myself at a crossroads as to which path I wanted to follow. And it took quite a while for me to realise that the right path for me to take was to actually reconcile those two avenues and create something a little bit more distinct and personal to me.

So having realised that, one thing that I also really wanted to explore was the nature of children’s nightmares. I was a pretty nervous kid, and I was afraid of a lot of things that I shouldn’t have been afraid of. I didn’t understand artistic stylisation. For example, when I was shopping with my mum, I was terrified of the painted picture of a man on a bag of potato chips. And, thinking back to what I would have dreamt as a child, I realised that the nightmares that I had as a kid were really different to the nightmares that I have as an adult. When I was a kid, they weren’t grounded by real world experience. They weren’t grounded by social anxieties or real-world danger, but rather, they were characterised by my incomplete understanding of the world around me.

That kind of put me in the direction of exploring the phenomenon of the uncanny valley of that feeling of something not being quite right, but also close enough to the familiar so that it makes you just a little uneasy. I wanted to achieve that in different ways, and also be unapologetic about the style of the film. Sushi Noh was the result of me bringing in imagery that I thought was evocative and uncanny, and grounding that as a real-world appliance, as a kitchen appliance. It came from the need to take something interesting and visual like the noh mask and make it accessible and inescapable in a household. And the solution for that was not to present it simply as an ornamental mask, but something that is designed to appeal to adults as a product designed to remain in a shared residential space being a kitchen appliance, and then putting a kid in there and seeing what results from that.

At a paranormal/supernatural level, that’s what Sushi Noh is about, but also fundamental to the story is the niece/uncle relationship. I’m a firm believer that with horror films they’re very much improved if the spine of the film is anchored by real world drama and character and something that we can relate to. I wanted to explore a relationship and dynamic that was characterised as a familial bond for something that was uncomfortable that where there were misunderstandings and inadequacies and communication and for the consequences of that friction between child and the man to eventuate in these heightened imaginative horror images that you see in the film.

Jayden Rathsam Hua and Felino Dolloso

It’s so good. There’s so many different styles that have mixed up yet, there’s a bit giallo here, there’s a bit of traditional Japanese horror, and then there is a touch of Australiana as well. It’s like this cultural blend of all these different things. What’s the interest in being able to work in the different kinds of genres all at once?

JRH: I think light and shade is really important, and I feel as though genre shifting and bending is a really great way to achieve that. When I was writing Sushi Noh, that was similar timing to when Parasite was out, and I thought Parasite was a really great example of a thriller that used common to great effect in terms of ramping up the suspense and making us feel all the more tense for the characters. And what I really thought was incredibly impressive about that film was the use of comedy to enhance the tension through contrast, as opposed to alleviating the tension with comedic relief.

So I approached Sushi Noh with an intention to incorporate humour and comedic elements to provide contrast to the parts that are less funny. Establishing that kind of rollercoaster ride, my team and I came up with a visual for how we wanted the film to feel like for the audience, and that was to be strapped into one of those carnival rides, where you’re in this [chair] and it’s kind of swivelling around and it’s taking you on this track, and the ride determines what you’re looking at. You’re very much taken along by this overwhelming miasma of colour, and you have no control over what you’re forced to look at. And that’s really kind of the sensibility that we wanted to adopt for Sushi Noh.

When you’re talking about this carnival ride kind of vibe, the production design with dirty walls and the dishevelled apartment really adds that vibe. Can you talk about the creation of the apartment? And also the creation of the noh mask and the sushi machine itself?

JRH: Starting with the noh mask, that started as a whole bunch of sketches. And we spent a lot of time looking at the original designs of the noh mask, and then we wanted to come up with something that looks like a bastardisation of the traditions behind the noh mask because the racial stereotypes that are in the film, and the exoticisation of Oriental culture is very much at the forefront about the commodification of different cultures and the ways in which we use stereotypes to market and commodify objects to be more appealing and recognisable for whatever your target audiences are.

It’s an intentionally tacky commodified interpretation of the noh mark that is also in equal parts functional too, because we needed the mouth to be big enough for the sushi to slide through. And our production designer Calum [Wilson Austin] sculpted the mask and took several casts of it, so we had multiples of the mask. We had different versions of the mask for different parts of the film. For example, we had a mask that was more of a puppet, and it had all of these controls connected to the back of it so that the eyes and the eyebrows could articulate. And we had different versions that were velcroed on to the machine so that Uncle Donnie could take it off and press it to his face.

Sushi Noh – Jayden Rathsam Hua and Felino Dolloso

The machine itself was a puppet too that had controls. Because of its modest size, no one could actually fit into it, so we needed to cut a hole in the kitchen bench, and someone had to wriggle into the kitchen bench and actually operate it from inside the kitchen using sticks connected to wires connected to the sushi noh puppet and feed the fish and the sushi out of the machine. Some elements worked in our favour, because at the first instance, when we were putting the sushi through the mouth, it kept disintegrating because of the friction between the damp sushi roll and the rubber that we had stretched across the mouth. Our solution was to slather the sushi in lube. That solved it but it also gave it this lovely gooey, luminous glistening quality to it, which actually worked really well. Happy accidents.

As for the set design, they were very much inspired by the micro homes of Hong Kong. We wanted a place to feel overwhelming and claustrophobic and inhospitable for a child. I think with the clutter and with the heightened colours, we weren’t explicitly portraying a super surreal, subjective world – at least in the first half of the film – but we definitely wanted to imbue the world with a troubled quality as if it were being shown through the filter of a child’s perception. And that’s why all the elements are so heightened. That’s why there are no ceilings and the room seems very tall and vacuous but also claustrophobic in the sense that you have all of these belongings and textures that are just populating the frame at all times.

Let’s talk about the advertising as well, the marketing and the motifs that are used in the ads leans into the idea of a nauseating, unsettling vibe, but yet still playing with a kind of joyful feel of “Hey, buy this product!” Can you talk about being able to work in that kind of tone for Sushi Noh?

JRH: I think the exercise of making the ad was a very helpful grounding experience for establishing the tone film. I feel as though there are some opportunities in the film to take it to extreme levels where you have the license to be as absurd as possible when you’re framed as a television ad. You can be as funny and silly and loud and crazy as you can, and it still exists in a believable sense within the world of film. And in doing so, it was a great way to put something in the film that could believably appeal to adults in being overwhelming and eye catching and colourful but also too much for a child and uncomfortable to watch.

We really had a lot of fun making the film in that infomercial style. Our actress, Natasha [Cheng], we have so much B-roll of her actually ripping that fish apart. We actually had to pull it back. But it was a lot of fun filming that. I feel as though the performances were already quite heightened in the film and a way to balance that was to provide something to contrast against it which was the very cartoonish performance in the advertisement.

What kind of direction did you give to the actors to get them to the point of being that level of heightened performance that they need to do?

JRH: Felino [Dolloso] is very committed. He’s a wonderful actor, and he’s super physical with his [performance]. There was this fantastic moment which was more fantastic for me to witness but we were talking about his movement after he drowns himself in the bathtub, and when he reanimates, we were talking about the nature of his movement. We described it as imagining that he was actually a corpse, but he had jolts of electricity activating different parts of his body, and he was kind of a fleshy Marionette being led down the hallway. And he really connected with that direction.

Between shots, as we were setting up for different setups, he would squirrel himself away in the corner of the studio and start rehearsing this. And as he was doing this, we had two of the makeup girls going out for their lunch break, and as they were approaching the exit, Felino with his eyes closed in concentration, starts staggering out of the darkness towards them, covered in blood and in his underwear. [laughs] That was a really great moment.

With Genna [Geneva Phan], working with an 11-year-old was really interesting too. On one hand, she was 11, and that comes with its challenges, but on the other hand, she was such a professional child actor. I learned a lot from that experience in the sense that my instincts had me speak to her like she was 11, and to compliment her and provide her with assurances more than I would the other adult actors. But I realised that as soon as I dropped that tone of speech, and I spoke to her as an equal, that really helped, and she responded to that a lot better. So that was an education for me.

But as far as bringing them into the zone of that heightened performance and feeling like they were inhabiting that space, I would come up with scenarios that were [easier] for a child to relate to. So for example, when Genna was standing in front of the sushi noh, and I wanted that feeling of subtle discomfort without being overtly terrified of something, I would create a scenario for her to envision in her head, but I’d let her fill in all of the key details. So I would ask her, “What’s the creepiest animal that you could think of?” And her answer was a guinea pig.

The situation that I had her imagine [was] that she was in a zoo, and then there was a guinea pig the size of a car in an enclosure. And she knew for a fact that if she reached out and touched it, it would bite her hand. And I said, “Imagine that you’re at the zoo. And the zookeeper is encouraging you to pet this guinea pig, but you know what’s going to happen if it does.” Putting her back in that space, I had her imagine that the sushi noh was a guinea pig, and she was just asked before we were rolling to go and pat it. And that was the reaction that we got from the film.

I love that kind of idea, that is such a great way of kind of setting a mood for her.

What does it mean to be working in Australia and being an Australian filmmaker telling stories in Australia right now? What does that mean to you as a creative person?

JRH: I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing and identity as well. I mean, being brought up in a Western society with an Eastern background has a lot to do with the way that I identify with Australian content and where I see our current slate of content and how I might want to contribute to it in my own way. I feel as though Australian stories have the potential to be so much more diverse beyond Outback mysticism and the Crocodile Dundee‘s and the dramas that we often produce. I feel as though genre is undersold in this market right now and that there’s a lot more stories to be told. It’s a shame that many of our genre filmmakers and stories are being shipped off to the US to be reappropriated, and I feel as though there’s a lot of potential in terms of exploring Australiana and our culture and imbuing that with unique imagery and experimental filmmaking as well.

I think as far as Sushi Noh goes, it’s really mixing the waters of what I can bring from other cinematic sensibilities, most notably East Asian horror cinema and incorporating that into an Australian setting to see how it flies. And so with that creative style in mind, it’s my intention to take that sensibility and adapt that into the projects that I’m working on now as well and really shine a light on different communities and cultures that exist within the Australian landscape, but also present them in unique and entertaining ways without taking them too seriously and having fun with them at the same time.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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