Take Out was Sean Baker’s second feature as a director. It was co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou, who has gone on to act as a producer on Baker’s subsequent features. I presume partly why she co-directed the film is that the great majority of it is in Mandarin, and Baker doesn’t speak the language but she does. Baker’s first feature was Four Letter Words, which was his attempt at something in the vein of Kevin Smith’s or Richard Linklater’s early work.
The film is an early DV project influenced partly by the Dogma 95 movement, but even more so by the possibility and accessibility that DV gave to young filmmakers at the time. Thankfully, now your iPhone has better quality camera than DV did, and of course Baker shot his 2015 film Tangerine on modified iPhones. This film is somewhat similar to Tangerine, in the sense that it’s a day in the life of a marginalized group in an urban setting: Take Out‘s central character is an undocumented Chinese goods deliveryman, while Tangerine is about transgender sex workers.
Ming Ding (Charles Jang) is the deliveryman in question, and he is behind on his payments to the smugglers who got him into the US. He has till the end of the day to get enough money to pay the smugglers. The plot itself is a really basic time-ticking structure, which you’ve seen in a million Hollywood films. Baker himself has said that is probably the biggest flaw in the film. The whole guy behind on his payments to whatever dodgy person (gangsters, loan sharks or in this case smugglers) is also pretty derivative, but Baker puts it in a world we probably haven’t seen before, which is what makes the film interesting.
The plot may be somewhat uninteresting, but it works great as a snapshot of lives of the down and out in post-9/11 New York City. I’ve never been huge on the look of DV, but I could swear this was shot on some form of 16mm because the restoration Baker and his team have done on the film really makes it pop in a way that I can imagine it never did before. You really get a sense of all the backstreets of Chinatown and the people who populate them—the woman who runs the takeaway that Ming works at is the actual owner of a restaurant, etc. Most of the actors are unprofessional, which naturally adds to the authenticity. The film for the most part is tightly scripted, unlike most of Baker’s films, due to the language barrier he faced.
Baker has continued to become one of the most interesting directors in contemporary indie film, and it’s interesting to see the film where his own distinct brand of neorealism was birthed. His most recent film, Red Rocket, is in my opinion his best work so far, and undoubtedly the most satisfying. My only major gripe with his films is that he always struggles to end them, but Red Rocket is the one where I had the least issue with the ending. Take Out‘s ending, on the other hand, didn’t really work for me—but it’s totally worth checking out, and the new Criterion Collection edition is certainly the way to see it. Baker only gets better and better, and given his love of exploitation/horror films, I can’t wait till he eventually tries his hand at that genre.
The Criterion release has a commentary with Baker, Tsou, and actor Charles Jang; a new documentary on the film; and a making-of that Baker made at the time. Also included are deleted scenes, screen tests and the film’s trailer. The booklet features an essay from filmmaker and author J. J. Murphy.