Lessons from Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s “Take Out”

This “Lessons From” column aims to spotlight low-budget films that filmmakers might find educational for the creation or development of their own projects.

In the early 2000s, filmmakers Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou were living above a Chinese restaurant in New York City. They were frequently interacting with the delivery men, leading them to consider the representation, or lack thereof, of a certain type of New Yorker portrayed in film. These take out delivery men were biking around the city, making their way into every apartment building, all while going largely unnoticed and underappreciated. Baker and Tsou decided that it would be an interesting idea to base a film around one of these delivery men, spoken completely in Mandarin (which Tsou speaks), creating the basis for their 2004 film, “Take Out.”

Prior to Take Out, Baker had directed one feature film. In the years following Take Out’s release, he would go on to direct a number of other features, including 2015’s Tangerine, 2017’s The Florida Project, and most recently, 2021’s Red Rocket. Take Out, for Baker, marked the only time that he ever co-directed a feature. After the film’s release, Shih-Ching Tsou, would go on to produce Baker’s subsequent films, often working additional crew jobs, extending everywhere from costume design to continuity (Tsou has recently directed her second feature film, currently in post-production). Take Out marked Baker and Tsou’s first feature collaboration.

The film opens on two men who have come to collect money on behalf of a loan shark. Ming, the film’s main character, has been sending money home to his wife and son in China; because he has just sent a large sum home, he is unable to pay the $800 that he owes. The men resort to violence, and tell Ming that if he can not pay the money by the end of the day, they will double the amount that he owes. This early ticking time-bomb kicks the film, and Ming, into gear. He quickly collects $500 from a relative, before commuting, by bike, to his job as a Chinese food delivery man.

Once at work, Ming confides in the other delivery man, Young, and asks if he can help lend Ming the remaining money. Young is unable to help, but he tells Ming that he can take all of the deliveries for that day so that he can make as much money as possible before the restaurant closes. Because it is raining, Young says that more people will order delivery, ensuring that Ming will make the $300 that he needs (this line, smartly inserted during production, arose from a decision to lean into the complications of a particularly rainy shoot).

With the plot established, the rest of the film leans into documentary realism, showing Ming making deliveries to different New Yorkers. Along with this, Baker and Tsou show footage of the restaurant’s inner-workings. The cooks make the food, and interact with the customers, while Ming makes his way in and out of the restaurant. As a result, the film reads like an accurate portrayal of a Chinese restaurant where the workers, either limited in English, or unable to speak the language at all, work from the beginning to the end of a normal day’s work.

There are no real plot movements in the middle 80 percent of the film. There are certainly conflicts, whether between workers and customers (see Ming and the “beef, not chicken” customer), or between workers and other workers (see Ming and Wei). However, these moments, seemingly plot contrivances in any other film, are never elaborated upon. In one moment of the film, Ming’s bike gets a flat tire. He gets help from Young, who says that he will “get it fixed in no time.” Not long after, we see Ming making more deliveries; a deliberate rejection of plot on the part of the filmmakers. These moments add up to give the film a realistic portrayal. As these disagreements and inconveniences would occur on any normal day’s shift, there is no particular weight that is given. Baker and Tsou are more interested in exploring the plight of the immigrant, and depicting their everyday environment, rather than forcing insincere plot development.

To maintain the film’s sense of realism, Baker and Tsou made many wise decisions, including the use of real locations and non-actors. Because they were using a real Chinese restaurant, Baker and Tsou were not allowed to disrupt any of the day-to-day functionality. As a result, much of this “day-to-day” was captured by Baker, who operated the camera. Speaking for the film’s Criterion special features, Baker said that he and Tsou spent the entire first month capturing B-roll footage of the restaurant in operation. This footage is shown, spliced between Ming’s delivery scenes. It is in these scenes that the audience is also introduced to the character of Big Sister, who answers the delivery calls, handles the money, and communicates with the English-speaking customers. Her presence in the film is undeniable, as her take-no-prisoners attitude with the more impolite customers acts as a contrast to Ming’s (understandable) acquiescence. Wang-Thye Lee, who portrays Big Sister, actually worked at the restaurant that Baker and Tsou wanted for Take Out, leading Lee to act as a consultant for the film’s depiction of how the restaurant would really operate if there were no cameras around.

In addition to Wang-Thye Lee, all of the delivery customers were non-professional actors, who Baker and Tsou found through Craigslist. When meeting those who responded to the advertisement, the directors would gauge their personalities and apply them to a scenario that they had arranged ahead of time. An introvert might be cast as the polite, indifferent customer, while one of louder personalities would be cast as the condescending jerk. Because Baker speaks English, he would, in these scenes, encourage as much improvisation as possible to ensure a level of spontaneity and realism (with the conversational Mandarin scenes in the restaurant, there was almost no improvisation). And because anyone can respond to a Craigslist ad, Baker and Tsou were capturing scenes with every kind of New Yorker that a delivery person might encounter. These scenes would be edited into different spots in the post-production process. Given the film’s slow plot development, one delivery does not affect another, so one interaction could be placed early in the day, while another is placed near the end. This repetition also adds to the film’s realism, as it seeks to accurately portray a day in the life of a delivery person, where one delivery would not affect another.

Although most of the improvisation occurred with the English-speaking characters, there were brief moments of improvisation within the restaurant. One of these moments occurs midway through the film, while Ming and Young are waiting for the next delivery order to come through. Within this scene, all of Take Out’s essential DNA can be found, from the low-budget techniques to the themes of friendship that underlie the film.

In the scene, Young tells Ming that he would make more money on tips if he gives the customer a wide smile, and says, “thank you very much.” The conversation is jocular and friendly, giving Ming a temporary escape from the doom that has plagued the rest of his shift. Baker’s camerawork constantly shifts, zooming in and out, often obstructed by the restaurant’s internal architecture and furniture. Frequently, a customer or worker will walk through the frame, adding to the documentary realism of the film. When Ming goes out into the world, he is mistreated (especially in the film’s ending). However, in these little moments, captured with authenticity, Ming is able to find solace through someone else who understands his predicament. In the film’s final moments, Ming receives financial help from Wei, another cook at the restaurant. The small moments, like the one between Ming and Young, elevate the themes of friendship and community that save Ming in the end. Even when Ming goes out into a cruel, unforgiving world, he finds support from people, like Wei, who “…have been there [and] know what it’s like.”

The budget for Take Out was very small, at only $3,000. In order to accurately depict these immigrants, who live very poorly, Baker and Tsou understood that they would have to get as close to the real thing as possible. The film feels real because it often is real. They use real people, who are saying real things, in a real restaurant with real customers. The narrative that is inserted into the film contextualizes the documentary portion. The poverty of these immigrants’ lives is reflected in the film’s budget. Baker and Tsou did not have the money to spend on an expensive camera, perfect lighting, or set construction. As a result, Take Out has a distinct look. One that is grainy. Cheap. The camera will zoom in and out, and then back in again, all in the same shot. As if all that someone had were a few people, and a camera, and all that they wanted to do was capture reality, if only briefly.

As a result of these factors, the audience is brought closer to a real portrayal of a Chinese immigrant than any Hollywood film would capture. With Take Out, Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, on a budget of only $3,000, create an accurate portrayal of a Chinese immigrant by getting as close to the real thing as possible.

Harrison Dykema

harrisondykema@gmail.com

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