Take Out, a 2004 film by co-directors Sean Baker and Tsou Shih-Ching, follows a day in the life of a young Chinese immigrant, Ming Ding, who delivers food on his bicycle for a living. The film eventually appeared in a few U.S. theaters in 2008, and now on Region 1 DVD from Kino in 2009, but it’s a shame this film has had such a difficult time finding an audience.
The film was shot in New York City and takes on elements of neo-realist style, with its use of natural lighting, actual locations, and elliptical editing. The writing effectively reveals the details of the narrative slowly, beginning with only the barest amount of information. This tactic allows the viewer time to experience Ming’s life, to appreciate his hard work, and to come to have a rooting interest in his fate.
The film opens with two thugs rummaging through a dingy apartment in the early morning, looking for Ming. On their search, they climb over sleeping bodies and walk around multiple bunk beds in an otherwise strikingly spare dwelling. Eventually, they find the object of their search, and pull Ming into the unoccupied kitchen. After informing him what he owes and that they’ll double his loan amount if he doesn’t have the full amount that night, they pull out a sledgehammer to leave Ming a message that they really are serious. However, Baker and Tsou cut away as the thugs strike their blow, setting a pattern that will hold through most of the film: interaction and introspection will trump sensational and sentimental events.
Not only does this technique of handling violence bring the imagination to bear in a productive way on the act itself, but in this choice the filmmakers refuse to aestheticize the violence. In doing so, they step away from what has been the tradition of American cinema for the last forty plus years, which has by and large reveled in increasingly disturbing depictions of violent behavior. Instead, Baker and Tsou take a step toward a style of cinema that limits the portrayal of violence without eschewing a willingness to dwell on its effects.
From the apartment filled with illegal immigrants, the film moves outside for the bulk of its runtime. Excepting several conversations with co-workers, most of the film follows Ming as he repeatedly delivers food on his bicycle to try and earn all the money he needs to repay his debt. The directors shoot the film in such a way to highlight Ming’s interconnection with the life and movement of New York City. Horns honk. Cars zip by in the foreground. People cross in front of Ming’s bike, prompting him to make quick stops. Grounding the film like this in its physical location—a reality further highlighted by the repeated shots of cooking in the restaurant and doors opening and closing—encourages the viewer to observe closely. What might be different about this delivery, when compared to the one before? How does this apartment building compare with the last? Who will answer the door, and how will they respond to the delivery man?
Ultimately though, Ming becomes the focus of these deliveries. Will Ming do anything differently? How will he react if there’s a problem? Will he take his friend’s suggestion about interacting with customers? The intense focus on Ming and the invitation to observe creates a bond with the main character. Not only is he quietly desperate in his desire to earn the needed money, thus creating empathy for the character, but he works so hard that it is difficult not to come away appreciating the work ethic that kicks into gear when necessity calls. In that we connect deeply with Ming.
And this is, I think, where the film makes an important contribution in our world. The reality is simple: Illegal immigrants more than likely come across as strange and different to most Western viewers. But the filmmakers put a face on Ming that allows us the opportunity to see him as a human being, rather than simply as a political position. This isn’t to say the filmmakers hint at the political issue of immigration at all. Had they done that (a la The Visitor), this would have been a much lesser film. It’s precisely because the filmmakers limit themselves to the simple details of Ming’s life that their film carries the power and expansiveness that it does.
I can’t offer an exhaustive list of what makes a great film, but I can say with confidence Take Out’s insistence on portraying characters that resemble actual human beings puts it well into the discussion.