Long before they shot the serio-comic transgender odyssey “Tangerine” on a cell phone, over a decade before “The Florida Project” became an Oscar-buzzed drama about the transient-hotel homeless of Orlando, Sean Baker and producer Shih-Ching Tsou co-directed a gem about the dark underbelly of Chinese diner workers in New York.
“Take Out,” like the later documentary “The Search for General Tso,” sees America’s Chinese fast food world underpinned by illegal immigrants, often trapped in onerous “loans” that paid for their transit into the country, working as virtual indentured servants because it’s not like they can go to the police and complain about their plight.
Using the jumpy, fly-on-the-wall camera work that gave “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” their intimacy and immediacy, they take us into one tiny eatery in New York and the big debt that faces kitchen worker, cook and delivery guy Ming Ding, played without a hint of affectation by Charles Jang.
“Take Out” is documentary-real as we see a couple of enforcers show up at the flop house when Ming Ding lives, shake him down for a 30% loan he’s behind on, and once they’ve cleaned him out and kidney punched him, ask for the $800 he’s still behind by tonight or “your debt will double.” “Mind your own business,” they tell his many roommates, who look on. Never once do they raise their voices.
Ming Ding’s options are limited. He speaks little English, has few relatives he can tap for loans. The fact that he’s still $300 short at the start of work drives our narrative. Can he make enough in tips to avoid the worst?
This simple scenario makes a great framework for giving us a little slice of urban working class life in New York City. Each brief interaction, often in an apartment doorway, could get Ming closer to his goal. Some customers are rude, a couple are hostile, and almost all are distracted. Speaking no English and being Chinese, he’s not inclined to smile and hasn’t mastered the “Thank you” that might boost his tips.
His chatterbox pal Young (Jeng-Hua Yu) passes along his wisdom — “Rainy day means more deliveries, more deliveries mean more money!” He gives Ming all of his deliveries to him to help him out, and tries to coach him on the niceties of getting a tip out of New Yorkers. No dice.
“I could’ve mail-ordered Chinese food faster’n this!”
And God forbid the kitchen, or the friendly owner and chef, Big Sister (Wang-Thye Lee) mess up an order.
What little dialogue there is is mostly Mandarin, with smatterings of English and Spanish from the customers. In the kitchen, the employees swap “How I got here” stories, make trips into storage to fetch more MSG and slice, pound, boil and fry their way through the day and night’s orders. Young provides non-stop banter as Big Sister gruffly handles counter customers, some of whom flirt in the hopes of getting a discount.
Even she doesn’t smile. This next order? “That bitch at 845 West End,” again, the young woman who complains about the order every single time. Yeah, “Seinfeld” got that right, too.
“Take Out,” beautifully shot and coming to a Criterion DVD, makes a gritty, intimate portrait of working life on the struggling end of the spectrum as we see Ming grind through a day of tip stiffers, bicycle flats and meltdowns over the stress he won’t talk about with just anyone, a debt that stands in the way of him ever getting his “You need to focus” wife and child into the U.S.
The plot has built-in melodrama, and the co-writers/directors add more, giving the story a glum inevitability. But if you’ve liked anything they’ve produced since, it’s well worth seeing this anchor title for that boxed set to come, The Real America of Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou.
Credits: Scripted and directed Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou. A Criterion re-release, also on some streaming platforms.
Running time: 1:28