Film Review: Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s “Take Out”

Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s raw and energetic film “Take Out” has an unusual protagonist, one that most of us have had encounters with, but few of us think much about: the Chinese take-out delivery man. Certainly this sort of character is as minor in most other films as they are considered to be in real life. However, in “Take Out,” one of these men is front and center, and that alone would make this film quite remarkable, even if there were nothing else to recommend it.

(L-R) Jeng-Hua Yu (Young) and Charles Jang (Ming Ding) in Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou's "Take Out." (Credit: CAVU Pictures)
(L-R) Jeng-Hua Yu (Young) and Charles Jang (Ming Ding) in Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s “Take Out.” (Credit: CAVU Pictures)

The film focuses on Ming Ding (Charles Jang), who at the outset is awakened and roughed up by a pair of debt collectors for being behind on his payments to the smuggler who brought him to the U.S. They demand that he raise $800 by that night, which certainly won’t settle the debt, but will prevent even worse consequences. Ming frantically borrows from family and friends, but he soon realizes he’ll have to earn the rest from his delivery tips, which means he’ll have to hustle and make about double what he normally earns. To this end, he arranges with his coworker and confidante Young (Jeng-Hua Yu) to take as many of the day’s deliveries as he can.

The premise of owing money to gangsters is rather a standard one, but in “Take Out,” this serves as an effective engine to heighten the tension of Ming’s situation and to give us an opportunity to see in very compressed fashion the many different encounters that a deliveryman would experience in his daily existence. The film also provides us with a panoramic view of New York, and the contrasts between different strata of society are depicted with a vividness that is particularly perceptive and attuned to class differences. The imbalance of power that results comes out in quite stark terms in the way the delivery man is treated by the customers he interacts with. The language barrier, as well as his low status as a service worker, often precludes any sort of recognizably human relationship between Ming and the customers.

The close attention paid to the minutiae of the daily routine of the restaurant, as well as the many encounters that the deliveryman has with his customers – which run the gamut from indifference, politeness and distractedness to outright hostility – is what makes “Take Out” such a special film. The intimate focus on a character that would get maybe a few seconds’ attention in any other film, or be rendered in stereotypical or mocking fashion, is itself a powerful statement on how service workers, and even more so the smuggled-in immigrants depicted here, are often disrespected and rendered all but invisible.

There is also much insight in the film into the precarious circumstances that workers such as Ming find themselves in, a result of the filmmakers’ extensive research, which included interviewing actual restaurant workers who were smuggled into the U.S. These details add a richness and depth to the characterizations in the film. Charles Jang, a Korean-American actor fluent in Mandarin, portrays Ming with impressive sensitivity, which is all the more remarkable for the fact that his character spends much of the film in sullen silence, both through his inability to communicate with the customers and his depression over his rotten fate. Jeng-Hua Yu is very lively and funny as Young – one of the film’s best scenes is the “how to smile” tutorial he gives to Ming. The film’s real acting find is Wang-Thye Lee, the one nonprofessional in a major role, as “Big Sister,” the matriarch of the take-out place. An actual take-out worker herself, Wang not only lends authenticity to the film, but also ably embodies her role as the anchor and reliable constant of this environment, alluded to by her familial nickname. A major highlight of the film are the scenes of Ming’s deliveries, which are all very revealing, and often quite funny, mini-plays. Most of the actors in these scenes were recruited through Craigslist, and their characters are identified in the credits with such monikers as “Bad hair day” and “No speakee English.”

Ed. Note, Sep. 29, 2022: “Take Out” was recently released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray in a 4K digital restoration.