Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Take Out (2004)*****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

TAKE OUT is unforgettable and harrowing, a low budget miracle. Directed jointly by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, with Charles Jang brilliantly cast as the central character, it is the story of one day in the life of Ming, who works for a tiny, hole-in-the-wall, Chinese take-out restaurant, delivering fast food all over town. He is awakened early, from his bed in a crowded, cramped warren full of illegal aliens packed in bunk beds, by thugs representing merciless loan sharks he owes money to. After he agrees that he must pay them at the end of his day, he is rewarded with a single, vicious blow to the middle of his back. With a hammer. This film, shot in ultra-verité style, is suspenseful and hectic, with moments of devastating poignancy, terrifying danger and the odd, grimly droll verbal exchange. I was in tears before the end, completely overwhelmed. I am a New Yorker; I have greeted such a man countless times at the door of my apartment in Greenwich Village, passed, as though they were invisible, countless delivery boys on bikes in the street or dodging pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The camera in this unflinching film is almost not there. The direction and cinematography are so skilled, and the acting, so real that one experiences, rather than observes, every bit of traffic, noise, weather, every encounter. Activity within the fast food restaurant is similarly captured, and we feel pangs of indigestion as the staff take advantage of a brief lull in activity to wolf down a bowl of food, exchanging small talk and good-natured, spare jibes, before they jump back into action at their stations. Who has not thrilled at the spectacle of the lightning-fast efficiency of the Chinese chef at work? Or cringed, amazed and blank-faced, at the shrill, shouted orders from the female manager with lightning fingers on the adding machine?

As Ming’s day progresses, the atmosphere grows more ominous and the pace quickens, becoming more and more frantic as night approaches. This is conveyed by ever shorter cuts and dazzling editing, complimented by just about the most hostile weather New York has to offer. All the while, the tension builds as we worry whether Ming will earn the money he needs so desperately, whether he’ll be killed by a speeding taxi in the driving rain, whether one of his customers or someone on the street will rob him. We meet the people Ming sees and the people he works with; a cross-section of New Yorkers, they are all familiar, still clear and swarming through my mind an hour after the film has ended. Ming, on the other hand, will stay etched in my mind for years, both as an individual, and as a haunting symbol for all the other young men who work in his job. The ending of TAKE OUT will strip from you any composure you have left at that point. This is a completely shattering view of the American dream, from the point of view of one man trying to survive it. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

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