There is truly no singular New York experience, so when Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou first set out, five years ago, to make the quintessential New York story, they had little idea of just how complicated that quest would become. “We started off wanting to make a movie that was a postcard for the city. We wanted to capture New York in the same way that so many films in the 70s captured it, whether we’re talking about the films of Martin Scorsese or something like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three or Bad Lieutenant,” recalls Baker, co-director of the new drama Take Out, on the eve of his film’s June 6th opening at the Quad Cinema. “We spent a lot of time thinking about it: ‘How can we best show New York? Through whose eyes?’ At the time we were working above a Chinese restaurant, and that’s when we realized: Of course — through the eyes of the delivery guy.”
But as the two filmmakers began their research, touring Chinese restaurants throughout Manhattan and interviewing a number of deliverymen, they quickly realized that plans to craft a soft-and-sentimental New York vision were about to make an abrupt detour. “The more we talked to these guys, the more obvious it became that we had to change our focus,” Baker says. “The story was no longer going to be about the city, but instead the city would serve as a backdrop for a far more devastating story about one of these men, and the struggles he endures to just make it through the day.”
The finished product is an emotional work of neo-realism, a rough-around-the-edges narrative that elicits comparison to the films of Ramin Bahrani, whose Man Push Cart told the story of an immigrant who spends his days pushing a food cart through the streets of Manhattan, and whose Chop Shop took the story to the sprawling junkyards of Queens.
Immersing themselves in their subject matter, Baker and Shih-Ching set up camp in a Chinese takeout joint on the Upper West Side, witnessing the rhythms of the average day over the span of several weeks — from the regular customers who float in and out at all hours of the day, to the way the hours disappear in a flurry of orders and take-out assignments.
Watching the film, it’s clear they did their homework. There is an assured and knowing air of authenticity to Take Out, a confidence in its pacing that suggests its makers know a thing or two about the world. In the kitchen, they film the hands, but not the faces, of the chefs who work in this country as illegal aliens. In the front of the shop, they survey the interactions among the restaurant’s owners and the shop’s returning crowd of regulars. Out on the bustling streets, the duo not only capture the deliveryman in action (played by a wholly believable, utterly sullen Charles Jang) but also his rushed interactions with apartment-bound New Yorkers. Posting ads on Craigslist, Baker was able to secure agreements with everyday residents, getting permission to film the story on location, in actual New York apartment buildings.
The movie opens, though, on perhaps its darkest note. Beyond the workplace, Baker and Shih-Ching interviewed illegal immigrants about their living conditions and their unlikely journeys to America. The answers they received were startling, painting the picture of overcrowded apartments — the movie actually journeys to a two-bedroom flat that houses eight people — and towering “smuggling debts” that must be paid back in full by those who have just arrived in the city. To put it another way, they are indentured servants.
“It was mind-blowing, really,” Baker says. “They have grueling schedule, 12-plus hours a day for six or seven days a week, usually with very little time for breaks, working on small tips and dealing with hundreds of people a day while barely knowing English. To make matters worse, they’re walking around with money on them in very dangerous situations, so you have muggings and attacks… it’s an impossible situation that’s hard to hear about. It leaves you looking at the city a little bit differently.”