[8 September 2009]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
Take Out, a 2004 movie put together by filmmakers Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, is a hard film to make sound particularly interesting. The bulk of the picture is spent following a virtually-silent Chinese restaurant deliveryman taking food orders to the apartments of various customers in New York City, while his coworkers sit in the restaurant gabbing about any mundane topic that comes to their minds.
The production is low-budget, to put it mildly, and the soundtrack consists of little more than the sound of rain on the city streets and the banter between the restaurant employees and the local residents. It doesn’t exactly sound like a film that, upon its theatrical release, caught the imaginations of numerous film critics and garnered awards at several film festivals.
And yet Take Out, upon its DVD release in 2009, proves itself to be a remarkable piece of art that deserves all the acclaim it has gathered. It takes a spare plot, an unlikely set of heroes, and a sprawling backdrop, and creates an experience that will likely be studied in film schools for years to come.
The story’s main character is the aforementioned delivery man, Ming Ding (Charles Jang), an illegal immigrant from China who makes a pittance delivering orders for a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which he has to bike to every day all the way from his squalid dwelling in distant Chinatown. What little money he makes goes either to his wife and son back in China, or to the organized-criminals who have to be paid back for smuggling him into the United States.
The film takes place over the course of a single day, which starts with two Chinatown gangsters bursting into Ming Ding’s apartment to demand repayment of an additional, ridiculously high-interest loan he has accepted from a local strongman. After taking the small fortune Ding has saved so far off of his hands, the thugs demand an extra $800 by the day’s end, or they will double his debt (and possibly do other, even more unpleasant things to Ding as well).
Ding manages to borrow all but $150 from friends, but realizes that he will have to cram in as many deliveries as possible the day’s shift at the restaurant in order to make up the remaining amount. Coworker Young agrees to let his friend take all of his orders for the day, allowing Ming Ding to possibly double his earnings, and letting Young relax in the restaurant and sound off about various topics while Ding bikes to the various apartments where customers are awaiting egg rolls and chicken and broccoli dinners.
Ding’s customers represent New Yorkers of all types. There are poor immigrants, feuding yuppie couples, gregarious middle-aged gay men, and everything in between. Some are happy to receive their food and give Ding a decent tip, while others are quick to complain about the punctuality of the delivery. Ding greets them all with silence and the check, his English barely existent thanks to limited interaction with anyone but his Mandarin speaking coworkers.
Which is not to say that Ding is anymore talkative with the people at his restaurant; he is noticeably irritable for most of the day, but refuses to divulge his problems to anyone but Young. And so it is Young who provides most of the conversation in the film, whether extolling the virtues of expensive underwear to the cooks, Ma and Wei, or assuring Ding that “a ship straightens its course when it comes to a bridge”. Most other dialogue happens between Big Sister, the restaurant’s cashier, and the (apparently real) walk-in customers, who generally have some beef over the price or the portions, and get lively responses from Big Sister in return for their queries.
It’s hard to say what makes this simple film so fascinating. A couple of things are obvious: the acting is top notch—especially Jeng-Hua Yu as Young and Wang-Thye Lee as Big Sister—and the peek the audience gets into the lives of these illegal aliens is revealing. The Chinese transplants pay huge sums of money to the people who brought them into the country, and dream of the day when their debts are paid and they can save enough to bring their families over or open their own take-out restaurants. The tiny, claustrophobic restaurant is their entire world, their brief encounters with the customers presenting an often distorted glimpse of the city that surrounds them.
The cinematography is perhaps the most impressive part of a movie obviously filmed on the most meager of budgets. While staring long enough at the screen reminds the viewer that most of the shots are taken with relatively cheap, hand-held cameras, it’s easy to forget this when the directors create scenes of such exquisite beauty out of the cooking methods of Ma and Wei, as well as the lights and landscapes of New York City. If you want to make up for a low-budget with an interesting backdrop, Manhattan is certainly a good setting, and the filmmakers get the most out of it, sending Ding to every type of neighborhood and urban dwelling possible in order to capture the perfectly balanced shots that elevate Take Out beyond being a mere guerilla-filmmaking curiosity.
And then there is Ding’s quest, the pin upon which the rest of the movie hangs. Most “one-crazy-day” stories have a similar structure: hero encounters problem, hero worries about problem, hero thinks he has found an easy resolution to problem, problem returns thanks to some further mishap, hero then suffers setback followed by triumph followed by setback followed by triumph, on-and-on until everything is finally resolved with only minutes to go, but not without one final cliffhanger where the day is finally saved by an unlikely ally.
Take Out eschews most of this standard framework, except for the inevitable cliffhanger, and instead allows Ding only one path to salvation. He simply has to make enough money in tips by the time his shift is over to pay back the loan sharks. As far as he can see, it’s his only way out, and so he trudges doggedly through the day doing delivery after delivery, all in the hope that enough dollar bills will be handed back to him by his customers to settle his debt. The audience doesn’t even get to see the running total, as Ding just stuffs the low-denomination bank notes into an unorganized wad, and never discusses his cumulative earnings with any of his colleagues.
It runs contrary to everything a filmmaker is told they’re supposed to do to get his audience to invest in the protagonist’s struggle, but it works. Instead of wondering if Ding will make that extra two dollars and cross the finishing line in time, the audience actually comes to experience in the actual drudgery of Ding’s hours-long effort to get out of the hole he’s fallen into, while still sharing the continuous tension that pushes any chance at boredom out of the way.
Most of the time he experiences nothing more exciting than the occasional angry customer who wants Ding to go back to the restaurant and remake his order, but the viewer knows what such a small setback could mean for Ding’s future. And by also learning so much about Ding and the other immigrants’ lives, the viewer also realizes that Ding’s hardships won’t be over when the day ends, even if he gets the money in time. Tomorrow he’ll have to bike back to the restaurant again, and start earning the money he’ll need to pay back all his other friends and creditors.
So Take Out is a hard film to promote, but one well worth watching. The DVD release comes with some basic extras which become interesting after realizing what a wonderful result the filmmakers achieved with such scant resources. There is an illuminating commentary track, which clues the viewer into many of the technical issues of the production, but the best featurette is the collection of cast and crew interviews.
It’s surprising to learn that Jang, who mutters but two phrases of English throughout the film, is an American-raised Korean rather than a recent Chinese immigrant, as he has captured the character so completely. And it’s fascinating to learn that the two scene-stealing actors, Yu as Young and Lee as Big Sister, have completely different backgrounds, Yu being a classically trained theater actor and Lee being a first-time actress who has spent most of her life working in Chinese restaurants in the United States. It’s a credit to Baker and Tsou that they were able to bring together a cast of both veteran actors and natives of the world Take-Out is presenting, and then create such a uniformly watch-able and seemingly authentic set of characters.
Take Out will seem a notable accomplishment to even a viewer with no knowledge of the steps taken to put it together, but the DVD’s behind-the-scenes extras will elicit a new level of respect for this unique, remarkable movie.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/110530-take-out/