Blu-ray Review: TAKE OUT Delivers for Criterion

Early verité film by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou is a pressure cooker for Chinese undocumented immigrant.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Blu-ray Review: TAKE OUT Delivers for Criterion

It begins with the buzzing, warbly drone of a red, volatile neon igniting over black.  

TAKE OUT”, it blares.  Buhzzz- - ZzzBbhuuuzzz- - And just as abruptly, there’s a pounding at a door.  Loan shark collectors.  Not welcome company, but they’re hard to send away.  For the guy they’re after, a young Chinese man named Ming Ding (Charles Jang, who’s actually South Korean), this is not going to be a good day.

Ming’s world is one of humming refrigerators, fluorescent and neon lights, and wadded up small bills.  He’s a bicycle delivery guy for a bustling NYC Chinese takeout place, one of those easy-to-ignore drones keeping his head down and just trying to go about his business.  

Being an undocumented immigrant in post 9/11 New York is far from ideal, but when the thugs come around looking for him to settle his smuggling debt, his grab at the American Dream goes altogether sideways.  He’s got by the end of the workday to come up with more money than he can possibly earn.  Or else.

Co-directed, co-written, and completely independently cobbled together for less than $3000 by Sean Baker (Red RocketThe Florida Project) and Shih-Ching Tsou, Take Out is a blistering ode to the overlooked lifeblood of the country.  It’s also a formulaic pressure cooker of sorts, as we spend the running time wondering and worrying how our likeably demure protagonist might avoid getting his face smashed in when he finally goes home for the night.  

Baker, on the Blu-ray’s extras, refers to it as a “ticking time bomb structure,” which is no surprise, in that so many if not all of his films (each produced by Tsou) operate on some sort of high-pressure time crunch.  Even when life isn’t violently threatening, that’s how it tends to feel for the impoverished “least of these,” whom Baker has continually showcased with dignity and true humanity.

The directors smartly opportunize their own lack of budget and production time by opting for an aesthetic of verité realism.  A great deal of Take Out plays out in perpetual close-ups, handheld.  The camera is always handheld.  

Take Out is, in fact, a “hybrid film,” a merging of honest to goodness documentary footage, semi-documentary footage, and subsequent scripted material that’s been slotted around it.  While a few of the restaurant workers in the film are actors, most of the people are authentic, just doing what they’d be doing anyway, and doing their best to ignore the camera.  

Case in point is “Big Sister” Wang-Thye Lee, simply interacting with the regular stream of actual walk-in customers and crooked cons.  This seen-it-all woman is Take Out's beating heart, and the actual takeout’s traffic manager.

Shot with a rented consumer-grade mini-DV camcorder, though Take Out looks far more satisfyingly filmic than, say, The Celebration, one of the Dogme 95 films that inspired this effort.  The reason is that the version premiering on this Criterion Blu-ray is the result of a newfangled in-depth, multistage post-production restoration process.  At long last, Baker and Tsou can present the Mandarin Chinese-language (now with new English subtitle translation) Take Out as they always envisioned.  If you happened to see Take Out back in the day, know that this presentation is something different.

Take Out_1.jpg

This director-approved Blu-ray special edition boasts a brand new 4K restoration supervised and approved by both directors, and with an uncompressed stereo soundtrack.  Criterion has outfitted the disc with a fine modicum of special features, most of which were pre-existing.  

Among those is the audio commentary track, featuring Baker, Tsou, and actor Charles Jang.  Recorded after post-production but prior to having secured a theatrical release, they had no way of knowing that, due to a dispute with another filmmaker over the title, said release wouldn’t occur for several years, in 2008.

Other represented features include a short program about the making of the film, brief deleted scenes, the lead actor’s screen test, and a trailer.  Criterion has created a new sort of “look back” featurette featuring recent interviews with Baker, Tsou, Jang, and actors Wang-Thye Lee and Jeng-Hua Yu.  While the new featurette offers a lot of the same information as the other, older bonus features, it does have a very clear “hindsight 20/20” quality that makes it worthwhile.  The other new thing is the printed essay by filmmaker and author J. J. Murphy.

Yes, Take Out is an all-in-one-day pile-on of abysmal luck for its central character, which makes it a dangerously formulaic grab for sympathy.  A big portion of the value of the film, however, lies in its demonstration of Baker finding his way as an independent director, and his and Tsou’s ability to forefront their own empathy for the characters as something immediately palpable.  

For these hardworking shunned illegals, New York City may be a New World, but not the better one they’d hope for.  The land of opportunity is just a land of hustle.  The customers that aren’t entitled and arrogant are fast talkers, or worse. No one is above quibbling over a dollar, or less.  

Take Out itself, however, motivated by sheer will and the love of filmmaking, demonstrates that it doesn’t have to take a lot of dollars to deliver something good.

Take Out

  • Sean Baker
  • Shih-Ching Tsou
  • Sean Baker
  • Shih-Ching Tsou
  • Charles Jang
  • Jeng-Hua Yu
  • Wang-Thye Lee
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Chinese languageCriterionindependent filmSean BakerShih-Ching TsouCharles JangJeng-Hua YuWang-Thye LeeDrama

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