Co-directors Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker (whose Prince of Broadway earned him best narrative feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this year) are in town this week for the theatrical release of their 2004 DV production, Take Out. It’s a powerful example of guerilla filmmaking with a commitment to the rhythms and social fluxes of urban life, as well as to the quiet human costs and virtues teeming at its core. Tsou and Baker effectively formed a two-person crew, and they camped out for a month at a busy Chinese take out restaurant in the Upper West Side (Manhattan Valley, an area known for its economic diversity, racial tensions, and general cultural smorgasbord) to film a fictional story about an undocumented bicycle deliveryman who has to earn enough tips in a single, rainy day to pay off a loan shark.
With cinematic models that include the Dardennes and Ken Loach, Baker knows his plot is a vehicle on which to hang an exploration of the everyday textures and personal interactions in his chosen socioeconomic setting. The plot maintains the countdown suspense of its premise, but the beauty of the film lies in the way that suspense shifts from its practical conflict to an existential and ethical one in the final act, bringing home the despair and decisions that define so many lives on and off the screen.
It’s also a remarkable documentary-like portrait of the restaurant itself: egg drop soup exploding in amber clouds within a vast iron pot, fried rice scattering and popping over dramatic flames, hurried customers bantering with the owner, whose phone seems to ring off the hook. Bagging, stapling, cleaning, cooking, the restaurant is a cauldron of activity, matched in its casual intensity by the constant dialogue between workers in the crowded kitchen, who discuss everything from family life to immigration to restaurant organization. Tempers predictably flare in the fast paced, steamy environment, but they’re forced to simmer as the protagonist saunters off again and again into the downpour with a bag of food under his arm. Baker and Tsou edit the bustle in quick rhythms and long sequences that emphasize the ritual and repetition of the business.
The film contains both professional and nonprofessional actors; perhaps its most radical and effective use of the latter is the diverse range of customers the protagonist meets in hotel rooms, apartments, recording studios, and various delivery locations. As often happens with creative low budget endeavors, the filmmakers turned a constraint into an opportunity by sending out a casting call on Craigslist, asking people to volunteer thirty minutes of their time in return for $5 and a copy of the DVD. Scores of people submitted their addresses, and twenty-five of them appear in the final film through a combination of spontaneous and staged encounters. As quickly cut as the film is, these personalities form a rich tapestry of emotional registers–weary, hungry, eccentric, angry–and the deliveryman, who speaks little English, serves as their unwilling sounding board.
With its minimal plotting, Take Out is the kind of film that seems to have limited options, but it observes and reveals its world so well that everything seems fresh and unexpected. Tsou and Baker have offered Q&A’s at Laemmle theater screenings in Hollywood and Pasadena earlier this week, and their dedication to the film and the issues it raises about people groups and individuals sharing public space are clearly front and center for them; the film is ample proof of the vitality of independent filmmaking today.