In this age of Julie and Julia, magical foodie realism and animated rat chefs, it can be refreshing to see a movie that treats food as, well, just food. Take Out, the story of a Chinese immigrant restaurant deliveryman, may be centered on food, but it doesn't have any decadent, food porn shots. In fact, this film is the opposite of food porn. The food often looks unappetizing. Great blocks of frozen shrimp are chipped away at, everything from chicken wings to tostones are thrown in the single deep fat frier, and the same wok used for cooking is used to rinse the mop after the walls are washed down. The restaurant work is gritty and real, but not in that sexy Kitchen Confidential sort of way. Food is but a means to an end, a way for Ming, the undocumented delivery worker, to make enough money to pay back his loan shark for the money it took to smuggle him into the country, or at least to pay enough of it to avoid serious bodily harm. Yet by dropping the artistic device of food as metaphor, Take Out may be a more realistic portrayal of restaurant work than I've seen in any film. There's drudgery, monotony and exhaustion, but also some amount of camaraderie that comes from people working together, just trying to get by, and in the end, there is a glimmer of hope that even under these conditions, people can and do get by and make lives for themselves.
Take Out was a 2004 independent film that met success on the festival circuit (it debuted at Slamdance) but had only a limited release in theaters. It was written, directed and produced by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou. Charles Jang gives an impressively understated performance as bicycle deliveryman Ming Ding. Another wonderful role is that of Big Sister, the no nonsense restaurant owner and counter woman played by Wang-Thye Lee. Remarkably, Lee is not a professional actor. She was cast while working at a take-out Chinese restaurant not unlike the one portrayed in the film (which was shot in an actual restaurant), and the writers met her when they were scouting locations for the film.
Take Out is available on Netflix. Check it out and take a break from the food porn.