September 4, 2009

REVIEW: Take Out (A)

I believe the only moment in the extraordinary Take Out that made me laugh occurred while main character Ming Ding (Charles Jang) was sweeping the sidewalk. He has one of those telescoping dust pans and brooms, and as he tries to sweep the pile into the pan, a stubborn wet piece of paper remains stuck on the cement. After three or four unsuccessful sweeps over it, he just has to bend down and pick the stupid thing up. This is a fill-in shot that lasts not more than three or four seconds, but it perfectly captures the essence of Ming Ding's frustrating situation. I sympathetically chuckled to myself, "Man, isn't that life?".

Completed in 2004 but not released on DVD until this week, Take Out is an unassuming early effort from filmmaker Sean Baker and his writing partner, Shih-Ching Tsou. The film received a very limited theatrical release last summer, but the few critics who saw it were unanimously and enthusiastically impressed. I can only add to the chorus of praise for this movie; were I to know what year to place it in it would definitely be in my Top 10. If you know my taste you won't be surprised, of course, since Take Out is another neorealistic, slice-of-life look at American culture, in this case focusing on the underworld of illegal immigration.

Ming Ding has left his wife and young child in China, smuggled through Canada by a group of unforgiving loan sharks. He makes a living, if you can call it that, as a bicycle delivery guy for a busy Chinese take-out joint on the Upper West Side. Having fallen behind on loan payments to his smugglers, Ming is giving an ultimatum one fateful morning: Pay back at least $800 of his debt that night, or see his entire debt double. How do you make $800 delivering Chinese food in just a day?

The only way he knows how: anxiously bicycling through the pouring rain all day and having cranky New Yorkers slam doors in his face, tease him about his inability to speak English, leave him coins as tips, and complain about their orders. The circumstances in which Ming works are stressful to begin with, but the added burden of his debt on this day makes every otherwise mundane interaction feel incredibly tense. Will some kind soul save Ming with a huge tip? Of course not - that doesn't happen in real life, and Take Out is about real life.

And you thought you had a bad day at work...

A person who is bored by Take Out is a person, I would argue, who is uninterested in people, uninterested in the human condition. Years ago that may have been me, someone consumed by their own existence and oblivious to the unending daily challenges faced by the other almost 7 billion people living around me. I had a heady knowledge of the world and its problems, but it was probably the four years of living in a city and commuting daily on a subway during college that really helped me study people in a new way. Where did these people come from? Where are they going? What is their story? Many of them may have surely been in the exact same situation as Ming Ding, stuck in a new country and working themselves to death in pursuit of the American Dream. In that way Take Out has much in common with Ramin Bahrani's films (especially Man Push Cart), but it's much more disturbing.

Take Out certainly sympathizes with Ming's plight, but it doesn't glorify in any way the life of a new immigrant. Ming is isolated, miserable, tired, and lacking any of the social or legal supports that so many of us take for granted. A scene in which Ming gazes at a photo of his wife and child is, in its heartbreaking silence, one of the most genuinely moving portrayals of immigrant loneliness I've ever seen. Credit is due equally to the way the scene is placed in the timeline of the story, and also the awe-inspiring performance by Charles Jang.

The acting all the way through this film is top-notch, and all the more impressive because several of the cast members are making their acting debuts. Of course, with a $3,000 - yes, $3,000 - budget, you can't afford a lot of professional talent, but every dollar of that budget was well spent. Baker and Tsou, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, could not even afford to close down the actual restaurant in which Take Out was filmed. The customers are real (several bring to mind the Chinese restaurant skit from The Fugees album, "The Score") and "Big Sister" was played by the woman who actual managed the place. The shots of food being prepared are shots of food being prepared for actual customers. It's all real and rich and absolutely mesmerizing to watch; the snappy editing moves things along in a way that doesn't allow you take your eyes off the screen.

I am perplexed as to why Take Out did not make a bigger splash in theaters or on the festival circuit. It did earn an extremely well-deserved Independent Spirit Award nomination for the John Cassavetes Award (for best film with a budget under $500,000), but lost to In Search of a Midnight Kiss. Ironically, one of the other nominees was Sean Baker's second feature film, Prince of Broadway (fingers crossed that it will see a theatrical release soon). It should say something that Baker had two films nominated in the same year. To find out why, I recommend taking a night to watch Take Out on DVD. Order some Chinese food - and make sure to tip your delivery person well.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 48/50= 96% = A

+ Official website for Take Out
+ Buy Take Out on DVD
+ Add Take Out to your Netflix queue


  1. Well Daniel, I must agree with your take (no pun intended!) on this superb film, which I did see at the Quad Cinema last year at a showing with Sean Baker, who posed for a photo with my friend Broadway Bob. The take out matron was quite a hoot, and just one of a number of characters that you'd say you'd seen at your own local Chinese joint. I completely agree with you that this film deserved a much better fate, and found it stronger than a number of other films that reached a wider audience. It's a striking and oddly enteratining slice-of-life with interesting characters, and a sense of "now." I can't say I was bored for a second, and when you bluntly assert here:
    "Any person who is bored by Take Out is a person, I would argue, who is uninterested in people, in the human race.,"
    you are dead-on!

    A wonderfully engaging piece of writing here, which was fueled by your rightly fondness for this film.

  2. Sam, did you write a piece about that experience? I must have read through it in one of your weekend reports, but I'll have to look that up. I imagine it was even more fascinating to hear how it was filmed there in your stomping grounds. Although I had no access to that, I did listen to the audio commentary on the DVD with Baker, Tsou, and Jang. It was pretty funny since it was recorded - like the movie - pretty much without a budget. Just adds to the charm of the whole production.

    Thanks for the encouragement to check this one out. I'd have been devastated to miss it and I can't wait to see Prince of Broadway.


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