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.
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