Most filmmakers working with digital video try to achieve a "cinematic" look, but in Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker's Take Out—shot in 2004—the video looks like video. The camera records the squalor and the splendor of its New York setting sharply and clearly, such that every cockroach and neon sign is in perfect focus. And Tsou and Baker smartly use that clarity to smudge the line between documentary and fiction. Take Out has a slim narrative hook, but the directors use it primarily as an excuse to take a verité, day-in-the-life look at one busy Chinese restaurant in a diverse Manhattan neighborhood.
Charles Jang stars as an illegal immigrant who owes money to the organization that smuggled him into the U.S., and is given until midnight to pay off the debt. Jang convinces a fellow delivery boy at the restaurant where they both work to let him take most of the day's orders, so that he can maximize his tips. But every time the kitchen gets an order wrong, or Jang's bicycle blows a tire, or his inability to speak English alienates a customer, he gets that much closer to being on the receiving end of another hammer-beating by Snakehead thugs.
Take Out contains a few moments of too-blunt expository dialogue, in which the restaurant's staff swap stories about how they got to America and how they're adjusting, but perhaps because Take Out's novice cast converses in Mandarin, those scenes don't clunk as much as they might in a typical American indie film. Mostly, Tsou and Baker hold the conventional drama to a minimum, so they can get on with showing how that staff preps the fryers, changes the rice water and refills the chili sauce, and how Jang bikes from low-rent apartments to high-tech recording studios over the course of one rainy day, all while preoccupied with troubles that he can't articulate. Take Out is the kind of small-scale, precisely realized drama that values the little moments, like Jang stopping in the middle of a downpour to zip up his jacket, while the camera captures every raindrop on his anxious face. The movie took a long time to get distribution, but there's no expiration date on filmmaking this strong.