Take Out: A Story of Stir-Fried Servitude

If Lou Dobbs could wave a magic wand and make all those pesky undocumented workers disappear, he'd do it in a heartbeat. And while that might be a triumph for law and order, it would also be kind of a hollow victory--pretty soon our empty stomachs would begin rumbling, and we'd be grumbling:

Who's going to pick our produce?

Who's going to pluck our poultry?

Who's going to chop up and stir-fry our chicken and broccoli?

Who's going to deliver it to our door?

Millions of illegal immigrants make enormous sacrifices--leaving behind loved ones and paying smugglers a fortune--to come to the U.S. and work long hours for low pay doing lousy jobs. You probably don't give that a whole lot of thought when you dial the Chinese restaurant down the block to order your won ton soup and lo mein.

Filmmakers Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou are out to change that with Take Out, a day-in-the-life saga about one of those guys you grab your bag of food from and hand a dollar to before you shut the door and forget his face. The film opens Friday at the Quad Cinema in New York City, where Take Out takes place, and illuminates the lives of an ignored but integral segment of our population.

Take Out stars Charles Jang as Ming Ding, an illegal Chinese deliveryman who pedals his way through a drizzly day made more dismal still by ruthless loan sharks. Ming's morning starts with a bruising wake-up call from his debtors, who barge in to the cramped apartment he shares with umpteen other immigrants and demand that he come up with $800 in interest on the massive debt he owes his smugglers by the end of the day.

Ming borrows much of the money from friends but has to double his usual take in tips to make the difference. His scramble to cram as many deliveries as he can into his day takes him--and us--from the hallways of housing projects to opulent lobbies and every class of New York City dwelling in between. His customers run the gamut, too, from kind to curt to cruel, or just surly and obnoxious. Not content to provide a sampler of New York stereotypes, Take Out gives us flashes of humanity behind those front doors--and inhumanity, too.

The repetitiveness of Ming's day, the seemingly endless series of hallways and elevators and apartment doors and customers thrusting dollars, makes for a movie that's monotonous in a mesmerizing kind of way. The filmmakers opted for a neo-realist approach that made a virtue out of their bare bones ($3,000) budget, forcing them to film the movie in a real Chinese restaurant while it remained open for business. The end result blurs the line between documentary and drama, but yields a sharply drawn portrait of a life most of us couldn't imagine and would prefer not to think about.

The film is perfectly cast and its cinema verité approach makes its message all the more compelling. While the Broken Borders brigade is fixated on erecting barriers, Take Out asks us to step outside of our individual fortresses, just for an hour and a half, and see the view from the other side of our front doors. It's a powerful ploy; as Nathan Lee writes in his review of Take Out in Friday's New York Times, "I'll tip more, I promise!"