Judge Eric Profancik takes his movies "to go."
Always tip well your delivery person.
Let me repeat the quote that boldly emblazons the top of the front of the DVD package: "Exceptional…Some of the most authentic neo-realism this side of De Sica." That's from Aaron Hillis and The Village Voice. As I read that I wondered if I should be worried. While I could easily deduce the concept of neo-realistic cinema, who the devil is De Sica and should I have heard of him? I wonder if I'll find it exceptional. Knowing my track record with indie cinema, I'll be happy if I think it's good.
Facts of the Case
Ming Ding (Charles Jang) is an illegal immigrant living in New York City, working as a deliveryman for a Chinese restaurant. He is one of many immigrants working long hours to pay off their debt at illegally entering the United States. One morning a couple of "collectors" come to his apartment to tell him he's behind on his payments. He gives what money he has at the moment, but he's told that if he doesn't put up another $800 by the end of the day, his debt will be doubled. As a parting reminder of the seriousness of his situation, the thugs use a hammer on Ming.
Entering a deep depression, Ming has just a few hours to figure out how to come up with this money. We witness an average, rainy day in the life of a man caught in a very difficult situation.
For the true cineastes reading this, I apologize for not knowing who De Sica is. I most definitely have some gaps in my knowledge of cinema. But with that said, I now have my first real taste of this neo-realistic cinema and its concurrent micro budget. Let's talk about Take Out's story first. This is a movie with a message. It didn't start out that way, but it quickly developed into this morality tale about the struggles faced by immigrants like Ming who quickly find their already difficult lives getting worse. We watch as Ming falls into his depression yet pushes himself to do everything he can in that one day to try to matters right. It's not any superhuman effort; there's no divine intervention; it's just the perseverance and power of one individual not to give up. Things may be stacking up against him, but he will fight on. It's the indomitable human spirit working to rise above the worst situations. As an audience, we see his struggle and hope to realize the hardships people like Ming face. In highlighting this situation, Take Out succeeds through its matter-of-fact, realistic, day-in-the-life approach.
That same matter-of-fact, realistic, day-in-the-life approach is also a detriment to the storytelling. On the one hand, I enjoyed having the voyeuristic opportunity to watch another facet of life. What's it like to work in a Chinese takeout? What's it like to be a delivery person? I learned a few things and enjoyed the chance to watch. But on the other hand, it turned into a somewhat tedious affair. It was barely 30 minutes into the movie when I looked at my watch and wondered how many more deliveries we were to see. Quite a few, as it turns out. We see Ming go out over and over again, meeting all the classic New York personalities. This repetitive nature bolsters the underlying message and story, but it also might bore the average viewer.
I'm not going to take points away from Take Out for the way it tells its tale and its reliance on showing so many of Ming's deliveries. I know that on any random day I might be more open to this method of storytelling. What I know that won't change is my dislike for the cinema vérité, guerilla style of cinematography used in the movie. The use of the handheld digital video camera for the whole movie kept me dizzy. There's rarely a pause; the camera doesn't slow down and give us a steady shot. Instead it's constant zooming, panning, and motion. If I were of a more delicate disposition, I might have needed Dramamine. I can appreciate this method of filming, and in many cases it works very well in Take Out. I would have just enjoyed a few moments of calm to relax.
Now here's the best part of Take Out: Ming. As played by Charles Jang, Ming isn't an especially likeable character. It's not that he's mean or disagreeable; it's that we're meeting him on one of the worst days of his life. And on this day he's depressed, and though he exudes determination to raise the money, involving copious amounts of contact with people, he's totally withdrawn from everyone. He's pulled himself in, only allowing mere blips of himself to come out when absolutely necessary. While you feel for him and his plight, do you really connect with him? At first maybe—I wasn't—yet by the end of his day, you've invariably found yourself rooting and hoping for Ming. You want him to succeed. And Jang did all this with a character who speaks little and smiles less.
Take Out was created and filmed on a shoestring budget—I believe I heard the number $3000 at one point—and it does show. Video is a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that I found generally disagreeable. From the very first scene, artifacting, shimmering, and aliasing exploded from the disc. On top of that I found the palette wasn't accurate, having a bit of a bleached look to it, blacks were murky and ill-defined, and detail was generally muddy. Add to that a thick layer of grain, and it's a less than optimal experience. Yet I think much of this was an artistic choice, for during the deleted scenes the picture is absolutely pristine, crisp, and beautiful. So if it was a choice, I think they went a bit overboard. If not, why the huge quality disparity between the film and the deleted scenes? For the audio, you have a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, all in Cantonese. Oops, I forget to mention Take Out is a subtitled film. The audio isn't as bad as the video but it displays its humble roots as well. While the overall dialogue is presented cleanly (that's as much as I can say as I don't speak Chinese), general audio (background, ambience) shifts from scene to scene, cut to cut, as it's evident there was little or no post-production dubbing and the live audio was chosen. Again, it's distracting. Then again, perhaps I'm just too used to slick Hollywood productions.
The DVD does come with a nice assortment of bonus material, most of which I found thoroughly interesting and added much to my understanding of Take Out. It might even be fair to say I liked the bonus features more than the movie. First up is the audio commentary by co-directors Sean Baker and Shi-Chiug Tsou and Charles Jang. It's an enjoyable, informative, and casual discussion about the entirety of the movie, filling in many of the details and giving clarity to the film. Next up is "Cast and Crew Interviews" (18:07) which is exactly what you get. Again, you're given more tasty information in a very open and honest fashion. Next are two deleted scenes (3:50 and 1:39). The first is an extended opening sequence (with the vivid transfer mentioned earlier) and the other is an improv/filler scene at the counter in the restaurant. Both were wisely excised for pacing. Next is Charles Jang's audition (1:39) which is interesting for the fact that it—along with everyone else's—was done outside on the streets of New York. Rounding things out is the trailer and a photo gallery.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In going through the disc and doing some light research, Take Out has taken a slow road to release:
January 2004: Shown at Slamdance Film Festival, U.S.
In the last year it has hit many of the Independent Film Festivals.
Take Out is an interesting film. I liked its niche idea of highlighting the plight of immigrants like Ming and the life he lived, but I wasn't fond of the way in which the story was presented. Having more of a slant for more slickly produced film, I would have to say that I cannot garner much strength for a blind recommendation for anyone. For those who enjoy this film, then the DVD—warts and all—should appeal to you as well and find a nice home on your shelf. For those who get carsick, definitely don't order any take out.
Take Out is hereby found not guilty of substituting tofu for pork.
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Studio: Kino International
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