Film about illegal Chinese immigrant claustrophobic, in a good way

By Ryan Pangilinan
Northwest Asian Weekly

In the early ’90s, there was a boom of independent filmmakers. The power of credit cards and sold memorabilia fueled personal passions.

As a result, the world was given movies like Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” and Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi.” Made for a few thousand dollars, these films helped usher in a wave of would-be storytellers.

With the advent of affordable digital equipment and the Internet, people now have the ability to make their own films and bypass the studio system altogether.

In Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s film, “Take Out,” the audience follows an illegal Chinese immigrant, Ming Ding (Charles Jang). He has one day to pay back a debt or the debt doubles.

For a film that is entirely shot with a digital camera, Baker and Tsou do a masterful job of keeping it within the realm of surrealist cinema and less like reality television. The fact that the movie was not shot on film further accentuates the authenticity of Ding’s problem and makes it the viewer’s as well.

Taking place in New York, perhaps the largest metropolis in the United States, many of film’s shots are framed in a way that shrinks the city down into an uncomfortable box — all of which is viewed through Ming Ding’s eyes.

Amazingly, Jang has very little to say throughout the film, and most of his dialogue is slightly above a whisper. This relates back to the fact that he is playing an invisible immigrant.

Unlike many films by Asian Americans, chiefly “The Debut” by Gene Cajayon, “Take Out” doesn’t excessively explain the racial undertones that Ding has to endure, not only as an immigrant, but as an illegal immigrant to boot.

Baker and Tsou, who also penned the movie, aren’t trying to beat a message over the viewer’s head. They allow the characters and the story to exist in a world where people not only recognize racism and stereotypes but also revel in them. It’s a very good look at how ugly people can be — even in the center of American culture.

And while some people may find his job and living conditions demeaning, they add more to how crucial the next 14 to 15 hours is.

The most admirable part about the film is how continuously claustrophobic it runs throughout its 87-minute runtime. New York gets smaller and smaller as Ming Ding’s hours pass and his deadline draws nearer.

Of course, the film is not without its faults. For example, the first part of the film in which the story is established is a bit on the unconvincing side, though it should be noted that it’s the subtlety that allows the movie to flow in a rather unique fashion.

“Take Out” is a movie that is built on a conventional plot, but the visual direction and raw take on New York and its inhabitants has put it in the same realm that movies like “El Mariachi” and “Kids” exist in. ♦

“Take Out” was released on DVD on Sept. 1. Visit takeoutthemovie.com for more information.

Ryan Pangilinan can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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