Take Out (2004)
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....And this ONE really has Cinema Verite written ALL over it! You never know exactly what to expect next. But, for the most part, nothing DOES ever really happen...and that, in the case of TAKE OUT, is a GOOD thing, believe me. Perhaps a bit cryptic and difficult to decipher at times, but I think that's because, culturally speaking, many Chinese Nationals seem to be a bit difficult to read!
Surprisingly, in the Special Features "Making-of" short, we learn that most of the cast are simply PORTRAYING characters from the Mainland. Of course, SOME of them really are, but most are Korean-American, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Chinese-American and Singaporean, ALL of whom speak perfect Mandarin. Wow! Sure fooled me!
A more accurate title might have been: "Chinese TAKE OUT Delivery Boy: A Day In The LIFE...or E-C Comah, E-C Goah!" If this zero budget film hadn't been executed with such overwhelmingly brutal and convincing precision, it most certainly would've been rated .75 to 1 full * less! From early on, my empathy with those on-screen was total and unwavering! They had me at "Sut- Tzun Tee-En-Hwah!"
At one point I actually said to myself, "Hey, they just followed this delivery boy around all day with a camera, that's why ALL this seems so REAL, because it IS REAL!" I consider myself a peace-loving person, but my identification with the characters in the film became so strong, that during one scene of injustice, I yearned for a gun to shoot the bad guys myself!
TAKE OUT does shine a spotlight on some important realities. It shows us how new arrivals are forced into a life of virtual slavery by bottom-feeders who trap them into a never-ending cycle of loans with astronomical interest- rates. Hey, you think YOU have problems!? Closing note: Considering the 3K budget, the production values aren't all that bad. Talk about getting a LOT of BANG for your BUCK! Your best bet...Let TAKE OUT serve you up a slice of Chinese-immigrant life!
Any comments, questions or observations, in English o en Español, are most welcome!
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.
"Take Out" is not quite as strong as those later works, but is still well worth seeing.
This verite style study of a Chinese food deliveryman's desperate rush to earn $800 to pay off the loan sharks that helped pay his way to the US has a nifty sense of almost documentary realism. The acting is very real and understated (by a mixed cast of actors and non-pros), and the tension level is high.
I didn't have quite as strong a positive reaction as most of the critics for a few reasons. First, while avoiding movie clichés for the most part, a couple of key 'twists' are broadcast a mile off, dampening their impact. Also, by making his lead character such a cipher (he not only doesn't speak English, but seems inward and withdrawn even among his fellow Chinese), that it's hard to build up a connection with him as a character. Yes, we can pity his plight, but I wanted to understand what was going on in his head. Also, the shaky-cam shooting style occasionally called more attention to itself then I think it was intended to.
It reminded me a bit in tone of Ramin Bahrani's terrific "Man Push Cart", but for me that early work had a little more poetry and richness.
None-the-less, an intelligent, well-meaning micro budget film (it looks like it was shot on regular definition video), and - given my fondness for Baker's more recent films - I'll certainly go back for another look.