For his acclaimed follow-up to Man Push Cart, Ramin Bahrani once again turned his camera on a slice of New York City rarely seen on-screen: Willets Point, Queens, an industrial sliver of automotive-repair shops that remains perpetually at risk of being redeveloped off the map. It’s within this precarious ecosystem that twelve-year-old Ale (Alejandro Polanco) must grow up fast, hustling in the neighborhood chop shops to build a more stable life for himself and his sister (Isamar Gonzales) even as their tenuous circumstances force each to compete with other struggling people and make desperate decisions. A deeply human story of a fierce but fragile sibling bond being tested by hardscrabble reality, Chop Shop tempers its sobering authenticity with flights of lyricism and hope.
Ramin Bahrani’s follow-up to Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, receives a brand new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, the film presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode.
Similar to Man Push Cart, the film was shot in high-definition digital and the master is sourced from those files, so, like Criterion’s Blu-ray for that film, the final presentation here also comes down more to those files and the original photography. In all, the image is clean, delivering sharp details with smooth motion. This is a significantly brighter looking film compared to Bahrani’s prior film, and the colours manage to pop more, the blue sky sticking out. Black levels are also solid, with darker nighttime sequences manage to still deliver decent shadow detail, the blacks rarely looking murky.
Digital artifacts are present but they rarely impact the image: at worst, some darker scenes look noisy and aliasing artifacts are present on occasion. The image is otherwise quite pleasing.
Criterion presents the film with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack, and appears to be new to this edition. Again, like Criterion’s Man Push Cart, most everything is pushed to the fronts and the activity if focussed there. Noises from the streets and inside the various shops are pushed around the environment in subtle but effective ways. Range is surprisingly wide (some moments get very loud) but clarity is never an issue: dialogue is always easy to hear.
Criterion ports over Koch Lorber’s 2006 audio commentary featuring Bahrani, director of photography Michael Simmonds, and actor Alejandro Polanco, and then they include a newly filmed discussion between Bahrani, Polanco, actor Ahmad Razvi, and assistant director Nicholas Elliott, running 22-minutes. Between the two we get an in-depth look into the film’s production, which went a wee-bit easier when compared to Man Push Cart, if only because Bahrani now had a film now under his belt that did well on the festival circuits. The track and new interview cover just about every step of the way through, from development (it originally started as a story about a mother and son) to casting and editing, and the participants share stories around the locals (who either thought they were making a documentary or just didn’t care that they were there) and the heat (they filmed during a record-high heatwave), and also talk about rehearsals, with the improvisations from those being worked into the final film; if someone improvised something that Bahrani liked, they would then have to recreate it later.
Getting Polanco’s input, both right after the release of the film and then almost 15-years later, proves the most valuable contribution, allowing for us to get his thoughts on the film both as a child and then as an adult, Polanco even crediting the film and his experience on it in forming the person he is today (running his own successful business in New York). It’s also fascinating to listen to him talk about how he had to put himself out there for the film, like when his character was selling DVDs or candy he was really approaching these strangers who weren’t aware of what was going on. This also led to what could have been a very awkward situation when his character does a less-than-lawful act later in the film.
Criterion also provides a new 27-minute remote conversation between Bahrani and author Suketu Mehta, who both talk about the immigrant experience, both past and present, and how they reflect that in their work. Bahrani talks a little more about the research he put into both Man Push Cart and Chop Shop (with other films of his getting mentioned), and what he was trying to capture in each film. This also leads to discussion about how these types of stories probably have more mass appeal nowadays. The two talk about their own families and their experiences, and it also leads to a discussion about getting films like these made or distributed.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer and around 33-minutes’ worth of rehearsal footage, divided into two segments: one around Polanco in the various shops (and I found it funny how one person checks if it was okay to swear in front of the kid and then immediately throws F-bombs once he gets approval), and the other focuses on him and his character’s sister, played by Isamar Gonzales. The footage also features interviews with the two. The rehearsals are mentioned a lot during the interviews and commentary, and here you get to see how ideas were hashed out, the segments even providing comparisons with the final scene on occasion. The enclosed insert then features an essay on the film and its representation of the immigrant striving for the American dream, written by novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Though this title probably features the same amount of content as Man Push Cart, I found the material more satisfactory this time around, with more of a focus around both films’ desire to present the immigrant experience in America.
A sharp looking digital presentation and some interesting features around the film’s production and the immigrant experience. Highly recommended.