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This film has no frills, but it doesn't need any. It's redolent of the authentic gritty milieu of a Chinese illegal who's got to get together $800 before the night's over to pay loan sharks by borrowing and delivering for a Chinese take out shop perched on the cusp between Harlem's projects and gentrified buildings all on a June day of pouring down rain. There's no time to breathe. The people are real. The external customers who come into the shop (some of them jokesters) are aspiring actors, but the apartment dwellers are opening their own doors. The lady taking the orders who they call Big Sister (Lee Wang-Thye) is the actual employee of the working restaurant that's in function in the location implied as the film is being shot. The rain is real. The anxiety feels real. What more do you need? Ming Ding (Charles Jang) is a pimply young father with a child he's never seen. He gets waked up early in the dormitory he sleeps in to get threatened and smashed with a hammer. The two men working for the loan shark take $800 he has saved and demand another $800 at the end of the day.
At work, Ming Ding is shyly noncommittal but his co-delivery guy Young (Jeng-Hua Yu), who was where he was four years earlier, worms out of him that he's in debt and lets Ming Ding take both their deliveries that day to raise his take. The essence of this film is that given the threatening situation, the viewer identifies all the more with the protagonist precisely because of his blankness and ineloquence. It is an aspect of his helplessness. And when Ming Ding makes his many deliveries he does not speak, even to smile and say "Thank you very much" as Young comically teaches him to do so he might get a better tip. He speaks no English, and this is a further dimension of his helplessness. The viewer too is helpless. We can't really see the money being exchanged clearly enough at the deliveries to know when Ming Ding is getting a tip and when he isn't. What we know is that the patrons are rarely pleasant and always hasty. For them, above all Ming Ding is a non-person.
Some who've commented on this feisty little film insist the plot "hook" is a formality and the aim is to depict the illegal-immigrant life or the low-level Chinese restaurant of New York City. That ignores that the detail is monotonous and repetitious; its effectiveness comes from suspense over whether Ming Ding will put together enough money. The uncertainty is the most essential aspect of the atmosphere and the most realistic.
In fact contemporary verismo or not, this is very much like the turn-of-the-century short stories of O.Henry, which often refer to the lives of the dirt-poor new immigrants of New York of an earlier era. Like many O. Henry characters, Ming Ding lives on the edge of life and death, poverty and exhaustion, and the story hinges on a last minute twist, a couple of them; the luck of the draw, a stupid mistake, a sudden access of kindness from an unexpected quarter. Of such things lives on the edge are made. Yes, we see the first twist coming, and the second one too is well set up, but that's how life-or-death short stories have to work. In this kind of story, whether by O. Henry or Baker and Tsou, the almost too tight construction of the narrative and the desperate exigencies of the protagonist's situations are friends to each other, and Baker and Tsou, who met at the New School, have made a little marvel of economy. Their scenario was dictated by the newcomers they encountered and Tsou, a Chinese speaker, spoke to everybody and even where the undocumented ones were concerned about anonymity, they weren't tight-lipped like Ming Ding. Tsou would like this film to be seen in China to show people the life of immigrants in America is much harder than they may think.
Seen at Quad Cinema June 13, 2008, where Baker and Tsou were present for a Q&A afterward. They are excited that five years after making the film, they are getting the audience contact of theatrical distribution.
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