"You get what you pay for" doesn't really apply in Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou's case. The filmmakers created Take Out, a stirring and vibrant ode to scraping by in the big city, on an ultra-shoestring budget of $3,000. Their effort, originally produced in 2004 but not distributed properly until 2008, netted them a nomination for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2009 Indie Spirit Awards. Never mind the fact they could have created more than 150 similarly budgeted movies within the constraints of the award, which honors films made for $500,000 or less.
Despite its rough trappings, Take Out is an elegantly shot and edited piece of work with a simple yet compelling story. It's been lauded as a triumph of Neorealism, which is appropriate considering its naturalistic style and cast filled with mostly non-actors.
At the heart of the tale is Ming Ding (Charles Jang), an illegal Chinese immigrant who works constantly as a delivery boy for a bustling Chinese restaurant in New York City in an attempt to pay off his suffocating smuggling debt. His fellow deliverer and friend Young (Jeng-Hua Yu) tells him it won't be so bad — it only took him four years to pay off his debt.
Ming doesn't have that kind of time. That morning, loan shark thugs beat him, took the $800 stashed in his freezer and demanded another $800 by the end of the day. At first, there's not much to root for about Ming — he's sullen, detached, noncommittal. But the film subtly and masterfully reveals more about its beaten-down protagonist as the film unfolds.
He can't speak English, essentially cutting him off from his delivery customers who probably wouldn't give him the time of day anyway. Even among his fellow Chinese speakers at the restaurant, he's withdrawn. If he made more of an effort with customers, he'd make better tips, Young tells him. But then we learn Ming's got a wife still in China, a kid he's never met too. The quiet devastation he wears suddenly makes more sense.
Take Out's plot is mostly driven by its race-against-time sensibility. After learning of his impending payday, Young gives all his deliveries to Ming to help him garner more tips. Then, we accompany Ming, wondering if each abrupt customer handed him an extra one or a five or maybe no tip at all — most of the time, the camera won't reveal it.
Baker and Tsou extract a good deal of suspense out of the ostensibly repetitive action; instead of wearing out its welcome, the film only becomes more irresistible in spite of it.
FIlmed in an actual Chinese restaurant while it was still in operation, Take Out is an ideal example of what a film can be with the most minuscule of budgets. It's unfortunate that it took four years to attain distribution, but hopefully it will get the audience it deserves on DVD.
The DVD comes equipped with a number of extras including cast and crew interviews, two deleted scenes, Jang's audition for Ming Ding that was filmed out on the street, and an audio commentary with Baker, Tsou, and Jang.