Sean Baker rose to national attention with his indie hit, The Florida Project, but he’s been carrying the torch of American Independent Cinema for a couple of decades now. It’s a good thing, too- not many people are continuing this important neorealist tradition anymore; along with the Safdie Brothers, Baker is upholding the John Cassavetes tradition, shining his lens on the small and forgotten underbelly of American society.
Take Out is his first real film, if you ignore his debut: a student-film-ish indie talkie called Four Letter Words that’s composed of college bros talking about college bro stuff. Perhaps the superficiality of that experience compelled him to co-direct and co-write Take Out with Shih-Ching Tsou, his longtime Taiwanese producing partner who clearly had a lot to do with this mostly Mandarin-language based character portrait of a day in the life of Ming, a typical delivery guy for a typical Chinese restaurant in New York City.
Shot in low-budget digital video, Take Out is quite clearly mostly improvised, blurring the line of documentary and fiction as we get a fly’s-eye view of the chatter between customers and staff both in the restaurant and on the delivery route. The jump cutty, handheld style lets Baker & Tsou trim out any fat easily and deliver a concentrated look at the most fascinating moments of Ming’s day- each apartment door opening briefly to give us a tantalizing taste of the millions of humdrum lives that equal New York City. Greeks, Blacks, Hispanics, and… yes, even White Folk are all represented in Take Out, which is, in a way, a love letter to the crazy, challenging, dangerous and absurd city that is NYC.
But Take Out has a story, too, and it’s an important one that highlights the specific issues illegal Chinese immigrants have to deal with, from the lack of command of the English language to the families they’ve left behind in Mainland China. All of this feeds into a more universal Ken Loachian tale of an everyman who needs to come up with the cash to pay off a debt by the end of the day. The financial pressures that so many of us live under serve as an undercurrent for every frame of video we experience here, and the filmmakers never let us forget it. The restaurant is full of fully-realized characters like Big Sister, the restaurant’s manager and leader whose real-life interactions with actual customers brings an energy to the movie that just couldn’t be captured in a fictional script. The intercutting between the verité restaurant moments and the political storyline that comes with Ming’s all-too-real take on post 9-11 immigration is a perfect example of how to use cinema to reflect real life through a fictional lens.
There’s a lot of despair in Take Out, but enough humanity pokes through the clouds to keep us going, too. As real as cinema can get, Take Out brings real-life issues to the table without the artifice or polemics; just the art of being human in full display. Intensely shot and beautifully edited, Baker and Tsou’s collaboration is American independent cinema at its finest.
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