A modest, lean, thoroughly engrossing independent feature by co-directors Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, Take Out follows one day in the life of Ming Ding (Charles Jang), a recent, undocumented Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman for a small restaurant. The opening sequence sets up expectations of a suspense thriller: behind on the debt he owes to those who smuggled him into the US, Ming learns via hammer toting thugs that he has to pay off $800 by the end of the day. Yet the film trades the easy-out of a ticking clock narrative for something richer and more insidious, using rain-soaked streets, obnoxious customers and the monotony of endless deliveries to expose the harsh underbelly of the American dream.
Of course, this isn’t the first low-budget independent feature to address this theme, so it’s a credit to everyone involved that the film deftly avoids some obvious pitfalls and makes excellent choices about how to treat the material. First, the film was shot on location in New York City during the business hours of an actual restaurant, providing an immediacy one can’t find in a studio. Seeing the vegetables being cut, the dishes being washed and the orders called in gives the film a strong neorealist vibe that only heightens Ming’s situation. Second, the co-directors eschew overstatement, aiming instead for an overall tone of quiet dignity that filters down through the staging of the individual scenes. The film’s careful compositions, naturalistic performances from a mix of professionals and non-professionals and atmospheric sound design (minus the usual overbearing score), establish an even-keeled tone that’s just right for the story. Finally, as if echoing Ming’s own attitude, the film never condescends to its characters or the audience so that its portrayal of the illegal immigrant experience is powerfully reinforced by simple, economic storytelling.
If there’s a drawback to this consistency, it’s that the film is perhaps a bit too one-note and just a hair too slight in scale. It could use more of the other characters in the restaurant, most notably fellow deliveryman Young (a droll Jeng-Hua Yu) and the amusing Big Sister (non-actor Wang-Thye Lee) who takes the orders and steals every scene she’s in. Also, nearly all the people Ming delivers food to are portrayed as ungrateful, racist, and cheap, which while likely accurate for New York, comes off a bit overdone within the film. Still, these are minor quibbles for a movie this smart, effective and concretely realized.
Take Out opens at Quad Cinema June 6.