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Choking Man is an intense blend of psychological drama and magical realism that encapsulates the contemporary immigrant experience in America. Jorge is a morbidly shy Ecuadorian dishwasher toiling away in a shabby Jamaica, Queens, New York diner run by Rick. He works all day long in the shadow of the ever-present Heimlich Maneuver instruction poster which hangs in the diner kitchen. From his solitary kitchen corner, Jorge gropes mutely for a bond with Amy, the newly hired Chinese waitress and even though she tries to reciprocate, the gulf that separates them may be too large. On the job he is continually tormented by his coworker Jerry and at home in his Harlem boarding, under the psychological control of his domineering 'roomate,' he battles his inner demons. Set in the vicinity of JFK airport, the most culturally diverse neighborhood in the world, Choking Man captures the feeling of claustrophobia and almost literal asphyxiation newcomers to America experience as they struggle to ... Written by
Jorge (Octavio Gómez Berríos) is a horribly shy Ecuadorian dishwasher, working at Olympic Diner, your average, scuzzy diner in Jamaica, New York. The owner of the diner, Rick (Mady Patinkin), informs us early in the film that more languages are spoken per square foot in Jamaica, New York than in any other place in the world. Jamaica represents the salad-bowl theory of sociological study, where numerous cultures will come together but also kind of segregate themselves to their own little area to function rather than to merge together (the melting-pot theory in contrast).
Jorge is one of those quiet guys that still somehow manages to attract the attention of loud guys, specifically Jerry (Aaron Paul), an obnoxious white guy who consistently finds ways to immaturely tease Jorge while he is simply trying to wash his current dishes and move on to the next set. Jorge eventually connects (not talks to) with his coworker Amy (Eugenia Yuan), an attractive Chinese waitress, who finds her talkative personality in grave contrast from his silent and restrained one. For the next eighty-three minutes, we become the fly on the wall, intimately watching these characters interact with each other and form relationships inside this sleazy diner.
Steve Barron's Choking Man gets its title from (a) its climax and (b) the fact that Jorge always washes dishes in front of the Heimlich Maneuver instructional poster that establishments are required to post. The commonality between both Jorge and the instructional poster is that they're both metaphors for something, be it immigration, loneliness, or something even deeper, and it's something I can't figure out. The ambiguity in Choking Man seems to exist to provide another layer to an already simple story that didn't need to be infused with symbology nor added mystique especially at the distracting level to which writer/director Barron employs the elements.
For example, Jorge may represent the commonplace mindset of an immigrant which is to take a day at a time, do your work to the best of your abilities, avoid conflict, and move on, while Amy could be representative of an immigrant getting involved in the American culture, surrounding herself with people of the land. One of two perspectives are likely embraced by immigrants and Choking Man shows this effectively. However, the film doesn't give these immigrants defining characteristics. We end up defining them by their social status and their jobs rather than on their personalities.
Barron's choice to leave these characters largely empty and unexplored, especially his lead, which the film rests on, leaves the film rather unsteady Jorge, in particular feels more like a metaphorical representation of something larger than his character could ever be, which only seems to throw another wrench in the film's plan.
Choking Man is a stranger project for director Barron - a down-tempo, mood-piece by a director who specialized in directing off-the-wall music videos for bands like a-Ha in the eighties and the nineties. Here, he slows down his directorial speed like he went from hauling freight in city streets to cruising on lonely country roads. This is an assured change, as well, for we can how Barron makes a film with a hugely relevant topic and fuels the project with symbology and quiet melodrama. The result is a mildly engaging, however, unfocused drama, which wastes its ability to say something with its constant surrealist animations that pop up, hoping to allow the viewers to connect with Jorge more than they already have. Much like Jorge's surface personality, though, his mental personality isn't much more engaging and further alienates.
Starring: Octavio Gómez Berríos, Eugenia Yuan, Aaron Paul, and Mady Patinkin. Directed by: Steve Barron.
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