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They careen daily through the city streets at all hours and in every climate, charged with bringing urban dwellers a bit of fast, reliable nourishment. Take Out is a cinéma-vérité exploration of a profession that many city folk depend on, but few would like to think too hard about, that of the Chinese food deliveryman.

This documentary-style piece follows a day in the life of Ming, an illegal Chinese immigrant who we meet after he’s roughly woken out of a sound slumber by two thugs. The men are collecting past-due money Ming borrowed to pay for being smuggled passage into the US. Unable to keep up with the payments because he’s sent a few bucks home to his wife and child in China, the heavies demand $800 by day’s end or else the debt will be doubled. They leave Ming with a red string reminder in the form of a hammer blow to the shoulder blades to make their point. Borrowing all the money he can from friends, Ming is still short $150 of his goal. Too proud to ask for help from the manager of the Upper Manhattan Chinese restaurant he delivers for; Ming sets about trying to make up the difference via good, old-fashioned hard work. Attempting to nearly double the take of his best earning day, Ming breaks his back to make up the last $150.

Take Out is a compelling, powerful film and a clear study of the passion of a filmmaker to tell the stories of those who live right under our noses, yet are constantly overlooked. Produced on a painfully low-budget, Take-Out’s co-writers/directors Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou truly capture the heart of independent film with their no-holds-barred, guerrilla-style camerawork. Shot in digital video, Take Out looks every bit as real as if the viewer was observing from inside Ming’s restaurant, or from the peephole of a flat Ming delivers to. The effect makes all of Ming’s travails that much more involving and often heartbreaking. Shooting first and getting releases later, the directors add to the character of the piece by including moments with the real-life customers of the restaurant, which was at the time of the production fully operational. Filming the restaurant as it opens up and prepares the kitchen for its first orders is also eye-opening as it’s not something that the Lo Mein-ordering public ever gets to see. Following Ming’s rides around his Upper Manhattan delivery route in ruthless traffic and torrential downpours gives us a sense of the some of the most basic hazards these workers face. The shots of looming housing projects and low-lit corridors and stairwells Ming has to enter for his deliveries provides a sense of ominous, immediate danger. Anyone and any situation could be behind the doors of these strangers, and as we’ve come to see in our cities, there is a segment of lowlife animals that do indeed prey upon these innocent men, prepared to take their lives for free food, robbing the deliverers of their few dollars of change, or, most sickeningly, simply for kicks. The film neither flinches from that sense of menace nor allows the threat to pull the focus away from the centre of the story, the daily struggles of its characters.

The cast is a mix of theatrically-trained unknowns and one remarkable amateur. Charles Jang plays the stoic, proud Ming with precious little dialog. Jang’s face is a canvas for the poor immigrant teetering on the abyss of hopelessness and despair, wondering why he ever left China, his wife, and the son he’s never seen in the first place. It is impossible not to sympathise with Ming’s plight and the haunted look in his eyes, and every darkened corridor causes the viewer a tremor of worry on his behalf. Jeng-Hua Yu as Ming’s coworker and confidant, Young, serves as a wonderful comedy relief in the midst of Ming’s dire dilemma. The good-hearted deliveryman not only loans Ming what cash he has, but allows Ming to take as many of the deliveries as possible. Watching Young sitting around the restaurant doing his best to avoid any actual work while dispensing some not so ancient Chinese secrets adds welcome levity and Young’s advice to Ming on how to get more tips is priceless. Wang-Thye Lee actually worked in the restaurant used in the film and her innate charm led the production to use her in her own role in the movie, and what a smart thing that was. To watch the quick-witted Lee match wits with her customers is a pip. We also get the answer to whether or not those behind the counter of a Chinese Takeaway are actually cursing you out in Chinese when you act like an ass. One guess. I see a sitcom in her future. The rest of the cast in the restaurant are also great and all strike some lovely notes as a hardworking family of sorts who are pulling together to try and keep their heads above water and keep their restaurant afloat.

Ming’s day from hell exposes what Chinese food deliverymen struggle through each day. Whether it is riding a rickety bike in a downpour, climbing the stairs of a building with a broken elevator, being cursed out for no reason by an irate customer or dealing with unsubtle racism thrown directly in their faces, these men just have to take it as part of their jobs. After such soul-destroying encounters, Ming’s impotent frustration when receiving a tip of less than a dollar after delivering food in a thunderstorm will forever make you think twice about how much you dole out your own delivery guy for that House Special Chow Fun with the fortune cookies. That is the beauty of what Take Out does, in Ming we see every hardy fellow who’s ever hauled General Tso’s chicken across town so we wouldn’t have to. These men, who come from thousands of miles and often live in dire conditions like Ming’s, huddled in a roach-infested flophouse with over a dozen others, are all desperate for the better life they were sure they’d find here and share with their families. All they want is to improve their lot by the fair trade of bringing you the food you’ve ordered. They are some of the hardest-working amongst us, yet also some of the most faceless. Bravo to Take Out for giving them not only a face, but a voice and allowing us all to see and hear them through this remarkable, important and passionate motion picture.

Do yourself a favour and run to see this outstanding film in theatres while you can.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

June 6th 2008

 

PS: In New York City, Take Out is playing starting June 6th at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St. btwn. 5th & 6th Avenues. Special Q & A screenings with Take-Out’s co-writers/directors Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou and lead actor Charles Jang on opening weekend. Click here for details: Q&A with filmmakers.

Click here for tickets: Take Out Tickets

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  CAVU Pictures)