Having achieved international acclaim with the likes of ‘Tangerine’ and ‘The Florida Project’, Sean Baker established himself as American cinema’s poet laureate for the underclass and the displaced. Dig a little deeper in his filmography and you will find his sophomore effort ‘Take Out’, co-written and co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou, which deals with the same social realist themes that have defined his work.
Baker’s raison d’être as a filmmaker is telling the stories of people that no one else sees, and giving them a voice. Whether that be the dirt-poor Floridians living in the abandoned motels on the borders of Walt Disney World in ‘The Florida Project’, transgender sex workers in ‘Tangerine’, or the lives of porn performers in ‘Starlet’ and ‘Red Rocket’ respectively. With ’Take Out’, Baker and Tsou give voice to the plight of the undocumented immigrant.
The film gives us a view of New York through eyes of Chinese migrants working in a take-out restaurant. People just trying to make ends meet, and send money back to their families. We learn that in order to make it to America, they have burdened their families with a smuggling debt owed to people traffickers in China.
One of these people is Ming (Charles Jang). To try and help his family with the debt, he has unwisely gone to loan sharks for help. The film opens with him being dragged out of bed by two gangsters, telling him he is behind in his repayments, and must pay $800 by the end of the day. A hammer blow between the shoulder blades gives him a glimpse into what might happen if he fails.
Borrowing as much as he can from friends, the rest he must make from tips delivering take-out food around the vast cross-section of society we see in the projects and doormen buildings of the Upper West Side. Through the repetitive grind of his day, cycling to each delivery in the pouring rain, we gradually feel the noose tightening around him. Though he tries to keep it quiet from his co-workers, they all know what he is going through, because they have lived it themselves.
There’s an urgent, documentary-like feel to the film, capturing these lives and the non-stop activity of the restaurant in a hand-held verité style. This naturalism is enhanced by the mix of professional and non-professional actors. Aside from a contrived plot beat in the third act, ‘Take Out’ is a fascinating glimpse into a culture most viewers will be unfamiliar with.
It’s arguably too slight to maintain a feature length running time, and loses something through the endless repetition. But the brief moments in between—whether it be his friend Young (Jeng-Hua Yu) telling him to smile more, or the aching look at the one polaroid he has of his family—have a heart-wrenching authenticity.
This Criterion release comes with an audio commentary recorded in 2006 with directors Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, alongside actor Charles Jang.
‘Reflecting on Take Out’ is a brand-new documentary produced by Criterion exclusively for this release. The programme features the directors talking about the development of the film, the ultra-low budget production, and how they took inspiration from the Dogme 95 movement. Further contributions are provided by Charles Jang, Jeng-Hua Yu, and Wang-Thye Lee, recounting their experiences of making the film.
‘The Making of Take Out’ is a short documentary from 2006, with the cast and main crew discussing the film, how it was conceived, and the research they undertook to bring the film so vividly to life. The disc is rounded out with six minutes of deleted scenes, Charles Jang’s screen test, and the original trailer.
Cast: Charles Jang, Jeng-Hua Yu, Wang-Thye Lee Director: Sean Baker & Shih-Ching Tsou Writer: Sean Baker & Shih-Ching Tsou Released By: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Certificate: 15 Duration: 88 mins Release Date: 17th October 2022