In Take Out, resourceful filmmakers Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker bring to life a little-known or understood world, but one that exists under the nose of most people who live in big cities. Their movie is part documentary, part suspense film, part comedy, and all quite moving—weakened only by an all-too-tidy resolution.
Ming Ding (Charles Jang) is an illegal Chinese immigrant who delivers Chinese food in New York City. Ming owes money to the smugglers who brought him to America and has only one day left to pay off his debt. Thanks to his co-worker, Young (Jeng-Hua Yu), Ming is given all the delivery assignments so he can increase his tips and make enough to satisfy the gangsters.
Thoughout the day, Ming works tirelessly, though he only receives small amounts from the often brusque, uncaring customers. In the meantime, back at the shop, Big Sister (Wang Thye-Lee) runs her operation with a firm hand, juggling multiple orders, rude customers and a squabbling staff. By nightfall, Ming earns just enough money, but he is robbed at gunpoint and loses everything. Despite the nearly tragic setback, Ming gets the funds he needs from an unexpected source.
Though shot on a shoestring budget with a video camera that doesn’t even mimic high-definition, Take Out authentically captures both the atmospherics and the drama with equal aplomb. In a truly skillful way, Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker recreate the harried working conditions of the Chinese takeout shop while also depicting the characters in meaningful and realistic ways.
Ming’s story keeps you on the edge of your seat—will he or won’t he earn enough tips in time?—yet the real goal of Take Out is to humanize too-often demonized “illegal aliens.” Jang’s low-key but sad-faced, almost Keatonesque performance goes a long way to drive home the film’s social theme. In one amusing but sharply critical sequence, Ming learns how to smile and say “Thank you!” in order to garner larger tips, but there is something subsequently powerful about the fact that Ming has enough self-respect, despite his financial desperation, to never even bother to use his newly acquired fawning “Oriental” gambit.
Only the ending, a sentimental O. Henry-style twist, lessens the impact of the tale, but like the recently released no-budget Frownland, Take Out demonstrates city guerrilla filmmaking at its finest.