TAKE OUT (Sean Baker, Shih-Ching Tsou, 2004)

Written and directed by Sean Baker and Taiwanese-born Shih-Ching Tsou, Take Out is a drearily simplistic fictional work, shot on video, in the style of cinéma-vérité. It garnered raves upon its 2008 release, but really for its admirable intent to cast a sympathetic light on someone whose real-life counterpart might escape our concern, even our notice. Such intent does not a good movie—or video—make.
     Its protagonist is Ming Ding, an illegal Chinese immigrant in New York, who desperately misses wife and child (who are back in China), and who has just one day to come up with the $800 he still owes those who smuggled him into the United States. Ming works as a bicycle delivery person for a take-out Chinese restaurant, and the restaurant’s Manhattan clientele are both rich and poor, white and everything else. A friend and co-worker advises Ming to smile, which Ming is too sullenly proud to do (and I don’t blame him), and hands over to Ming his own deliveries so that Ming can make more money than usual in tips on this rainy day. Even so, the amount he must come up with is impossibly high
     Baker and Tsou establish their use of the claustrophobic frame early on, in Ming’s impoverished place, when one of the thugs drags Ming to the sink and delivers a hammer blow to the back of Ming’s neck, with Ming’s head nearly filling the frame. The restaurant, too, proves a limited space. But the directorial pair’s use of camera in this vein is most prominent when Ming makes his many deliveries, with the back of Ming’s head looming large in the foreground, and the customer, at an apartment door, in the background. Naturally enough, we attend to the diverse reactions of these customers, whose lives seem to inhabit space while Ming’s seems to be trapped in the confinement he totes with him, to which the camera closely following him is correlative. This strikes me as a shallow visual concept. Also, a number of customer reactions to Ming seem awfully contrived—for instance, in the case of the cheery man who tips Ming, saying, “Go have a beer!” when we know towards what all Ming’s money must go.
     Baker and Tsou manipulate us. Ming does make a lot of money that day, and one last delivery after normal closing hours seemingly makes the monetarily impossible possible; but he is robbed. (We expect that his bicycle, back down on the street, will be stolen—to remind us of guess-what; but, no, it’s his purse—and in another confined space: an elevator.) One more such reversal awaits.
     This alone made me smile: the customer who only had euros. Oh, those upper Manhattanites!


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