Shot on location in New York City on a budget of $3,000, Take Out is the type of indie film you hope to discover in any given year.
The tag-line lays it out like a type of thriller: “One Illegal Immigrant, One Smuggling Debt, One Day to Pay Up” but in reality the film is about much more than that. “We were living above a Chinese restaurant and in talking to people in the neighborhood, we realized that this was a story we wanted to tell” said Shih-Ching Tsou from LA where she and co-director Sean Baker are preparing to release their film on Friday, September 19th.
Take Out is bookended by the story of Mind Ding, an illegal immigrant who has ended up in New York City trying to make a better life for himself and his family who he has left behind in China. In an effort to help out his parents, who are also responsible for his brother’s debt, Ching borrows money from a loan shark to pay the snake-head but when he fails to make his payment on time, a couple of thugs come to collect. The ultimatum: pay up by tonight or your debt doubles. Ding manages to borrow some of the money from friends but comes up short and he quickly comes to realize that the last bit of cash, nearly $200, will have to come from his job as a delivery man for a take out restaurant.
It is through Ding’s deliveries that we come to see one of the real marvels of Tsou and Baker’s film: the real New York. “New York has been seen on screen in recent years as very glossy “Sex and the City”sort of portrayal” said Baker “and we wanted to show the other side of New York. A little grittier. We were both influenced by the New York films of the 70’s. The Scorsese films and a little bit later with Abel Ferrara’s film’s like Bad Lieutenant. Films that had an edge to them because New York has an edge.” That edge is apparent throughout the film and the fact that it was shot “guerrilla” style certainly helps. Although Baker and Tsou admit that it wasn’t easy, shooting in the moment led to a number of “happy accidents.”
“We were lucky enough to have many of those [happy accidents].” said Baker “It comes from allowing the city to be itself and not try to fake it. New York already has such a character about it. Just go ahead and allow it to happen.” And the city’s character comes through clearly in the sequences of Ding making his way through the rainy city but mostly, it comes through in the collection of customers to whom Ding delivers. They are of every ethnicity and social background and each one adds to the diversity that one expects to find in a city like New York. Baker and Tsou found their customers through ads on Craigslist and all of the delivery scenes were improvised based on the individuals and their characteristics. The result is a colourful group of individuals that form the fabric of city life. Not only are they entertaining to watch but they also provide a sort of mirror which reflects societies’ varied views on immigrants.
In addition to the small cameos from the various take-out customers, the film is populated by a rich cast of characters which are wonderfully portrayed by very talented actors. Charles Jang, a Korean-American raised in New York, brings the right amount of vulnerability and weariness to the lead role of Ming Ding. His approach to the role is very understated and it works to the benefit of the character. Jeng-Hua Yu plays Young, Ding’s co-worker and friend. Baker noted that “the film is very heavy and we needed the comic relief” and Yu, a classically trailer theater actor from Taiwan, perfectly fits the bill. The rapport between Ding and Young seems very natural which ads to the film’s realism. Perhaps one of the film maker’s best finds was Wang-Thye Lee who plays the role of Big Sister, the restaurant’s order taker. The only non-actor in a lead role, Lee was the order taker at the restaurant where the directors shot the film and realizing how difficult it would be to fill that role with an actor, the duo asked her to appear in the film and she brings a realism which would be impossible to replicate. There’s a certain rhythm to managing the phones and interacting with the customers who frequent a restaurant as busy as this one and Lee’s performance only adds to the already realistic feel of the film.
Baker commented that he and Tsou “really wanted to blur the lines between fiction narrative and documentary” and they have certainly succeeded. Outside of the opening scenes with the mobsters, Take Out feels as though a documentary crew followed a delivery man around New York for one night. The combination of the two styles has resulted in a film which displays the harsh realities of every day city life but which also embraces the moments of joy which can lighten a day.
Tsou and Baker are looking forward to working together again in the near future and the duo are collaborating on a new project which they hope will go into production in the summer of 2009. Until that new project takes off, Sean Baker will be busy touring with his new film, the award winning Prince of Broadway which has already won the Grand Jury Prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival and which will be making the festival rounds over the next few months. As for Take Out, the film opens in LA on September 19th and the duo are looking forward to finding a foreign distributor for the film and eventually,a DVD release. It’s a wonderfully touching story brimming with both drama and laughter and which, in the end, delivers a message of friendship, hope and a sense there is good in the world and that sometimes, it comes it comes from the most unexpected places.
Click “play” to see the trailer: