"Take Out" is a brilliant piece of low budget filmmaking. It covers a couple of days in the life a Chinese illegal alien.
Ming Ding is one of those fixtures of the landscape, there but not there, the guy on the bike, head down, weaving in and out of traffic, rain or shine, plastic bags of egg rolls and General Tso's Chicken dangling from the handlebars. He's the guy who hands the bags over to you, listens to you whine about not enough soy sauce or `they forgot the chopsticks', who makes change, takes his tip and never makes eye contact. That's what we see. This is an almost cinema verite look at the parts we don't see.
The world Ming lives in isn't pretty. He and his coworkers are all indentured to the human traffickers who brought them here. Life is work, work is drudgery, pay is lousy. Ming once earned $90 in tips in a single day, his best day. Home is a rented bed in a tenement apartment with 20 or 30 other guys. Still, in a year or two, he'll pay off his debt and start saving to bring over his wife and son. One of the other delivery men is saving to open his own business. They're here for a reason and they're willing to invest some real sweat equity into the program.
"Take Out" is not all grim misery. Director Sean Baker always manages to bring a little low key humor to his work. The scenes in the restaurant have a kind of cockeyed New York charm. If you ever wanted to know what went on behind that counter where you placed your order (and who doesn't), this gives you a glimpse. The give and take between Elder Sister, who owns the restaurant, and her staff feels right. We make the rounds with Ming on one grueling day and night of non-stop deliveries and see ourselves through his eyes. We're the people behind the door, patronizing, cranky, rude. Everyone has a pose, and it's all wasted. All he needs from us, all he wants, is that tip. That's what he's pedalling the bike, why he's dodging trucks at ten o'clock on a miserble rainy night, running up and down two, three flights of stairs to get us our styrofoam containers while the goodies inside are still hot.
The camerawork is first rate, given that this appears to have been filmed in standard definition without much in the way of fancy lighting. Still, the bare bones look is just right; It captures completely the feeling of a working class New York neighborhood and the people who live there. This is not, however, a documentary. There is a plot. It involves Ming's problems with his loan sharks because of a missed payment. The shark sends two guys with a hammer to talk to Ming. They explain that his next payment has to be $800 or the debt will double. A little hammer to the ribs emphasizes the point. Ming goes to friends and family and begs and borrows $650, leaving him $150 short of the needed sum. He's left with one day of delivering take out to earn it.
One of the reviewers felt the film was slow. If you're expecting car chases, chopsocky action and cheap thrills, maybe it is. Even the scene with the thugs who menace Ming isn't over the top. No ninja kicks or flying tiger leaps. There is no gratuitous violence. These fellows are professionals and if they gave Ming a real beating, he might not be able to work the next day and they're more interested getting paid than in breaking bones. Makes sense. If you want acting that's low key and on point, emotions that feel genuine, people who seem real, and slice of life authenticity, you find it all here.
Baker, who did the shooting on "Takeout" has been compared to Martin Scorcese. The Village Voice says this is the most authentic neo-realist film-making since DeSica. The comparisons are valid, but not necessary. Baker holds his own. Watch this and a similar film, "Prince of Broadway." Both are standouts. I hope we see more from this talented hyphenate. Five big stars for a gritty but not overwhelmingly grim NY story. Check out Take Out.