Take Out: Off the Books

<em>Take Out: </em>Off the Books

In the final credits to Sean Baker’s debut feature, Four Letter Words (2000), the director thanked Shih-Ching Tsou for saving his life. The postproduction on the film coincided with an especially dark period for Baker, and he credits Tsou with helping him get through it. The two met in an editing workshop at the New School in New York City, where Baker was taking another swing at restructuring that film. They eventually began living together above a Chinese restaurant, bringing them into daily contact with the delivery people who hung out in the lobby of their apartment building. The fact that these workers traveled to various homes around New York suggested to the filmmakers that this material could make for an interesting slice of life. That initial idea changed radically in development, as they learned more about the complex social reality of their subjects. In its final form, Baker and Tsou’s Take Out (2004) explores the underground world of illegal human smuggling and, in doing so, examines the attendant issue of loan-sharking within the city’s Chinese community.

Although Take Out remains the only film they have codirected, Tsou and Baker have since gone on to a long and productive collaboration. In his subsequent films as a director, Baker has continued to explore the lives of individuals from marginalized subcultures: West Africans selling knockoff merchandise on the streets of New York (Prince of Broadway, 2008), performers in the adult film industry in the San Fernando Valley (Starlet, 2012), transgender sex workers in Los Angeles (Tangerine, 2015), homeless kids living in Florida motels (The Florida Project, 2017), and a washed-up porn actor returning to his Texas hometown with dreams of making a comeback (Red Rocket, 2021). Tsou, who is currently in preproduction on a second feature, to be filmed in Taipei, served as a producer and in various other roles on the latter four films. With Take Out, the two filmmakers not only set the template for these movies but also crafted a suspenseful human drama with only the most minimal resources at their disposal.

Take Out tells the story of Ming Ding (Charles Jang), a recent immigrant, who is given until the end of the day to pay his debt to loan sharks. The film’s emphasis on visual storytelling and the run-and-gun approach with which it was made represent a distinct change from Baker’s first effort, which was more heavily script-dependent, especially in his insistence that the actors stick to the dialogue as written. In making Take Out on a shoestring budget of $3,000, Baker and Tsou took a resolutely DIY approach. They cast a number of first-time actors; filmed on location, including in a working restaurant during business hours; and shot the movie with mostly available light and a frenetic, handheld, documentary-like style.

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