The American dream has rarely seemed so far away as in the raw, vérité Take Out, by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, an immersion in the life of an undocumented Chinese immigrant struggling to get by on the margins of post-9/11 New York City. Facing violent retaliation from a loan shark, restaurant deliveryman Ming Ding (Charles Jang) has until nightfall to pay back the money he owes, and he encounters both crushing setbacks and moments of unexpected humanity as he races against time to earn enough in tips over the course of a frantic day. From this simple setup, Baker and Tsou fashion a kind of neorealist survival thriller of the everyday, shedding compassionate light on the too often overlooked lives and labor that keep New York running.
Sean Baker’s and Shih-ching Tsou’s 2004 film Take Out receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection and is presented here on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a new 4K restoration.
The end presentation is a bit of an oddball due to the source materials and the process this restoration has ultimately gone through. To be clear, yes, the film has received a 4K restoration but it shares the same caveat that came with the 2K restoration for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration: the film was shot on video, MiniDV in this case (Vinterberg shot his film on DigiBeta video tape), which only offers 480 lines of vertical resolution in NTSC, less than a quarter of what 4K is able to render. To get it to 4K the film has had to go through a incredibly complicated and expensive-sounding process that can sound like overkill, but Baker explains why this was all done in an included interview.
As Baker and Tsou mention a few times throughout the included features the film was heavily influenced by the films of the Dogme95 movement, The Celebration and The Idiots in particular, and Baker explains he intended to give the film a final polish similar to what those films received by transferring the final video image to celluloid and striking actual prints for screenings. Sadly that was not in the cards at the time (I believe due to budget and time) and he ended up exporting the finished edit from his editing software and it was screened digitally as-is in that lower resolution. Kino’s original DVD also sourced its master from those files and this gave the film an unfinished digital look Baker wasn’t happy with.
For this new restoration Baker has taken the opportunity to do what he had originally wanted to do, starting things off by upscaling the original MiniDV footage to 2K, removing as many digital anomalies as possible in the process, before printing it out to 35mm film and creating a digital intermediate. From there that film element was scanned in 4K and the picture was regraded to what Baker had intended, giving the film that final polish he had always desired but was never able to accomplish.
And how has it turned out? Not bad at all, I’d say. Its digital roots show through for sure, but what ends up making this presentation the oddball that it ends up being is that it still has this terrific film texture that I was not expecting at all. Simply focusing on the 4K scan of the film elements the grain structure has been captured beautifully and Criterion’s encode does a spectacular job rendering it. That strong rendering of the film grain paired with the improved colours leads to end results that have less of a home video look and more of a film look.
Hindering things is the fact that the image is still not as sharp as it would have been if it had actually been shot on film, or even in high-definition. The upscale has done a decent enough job in exposing and highlighting details where it can, but the lower resolution never picked up a lot of the finer details present so that information is lost for good and this leads to a certain waxiness in places. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot that can be done about that short of running it through some AI algorithm.
Digital anomalies are still present but they’re not as bad as I was expecting. Jagged edges and shimmering can show up in tighter edges and patterns, but they end up being very minor all things considered. There are also issues around motion blur where a trailing effect is present with quick motions. Faint blocky patterns can even appear from time to time, and darker scenes can still have that “video” look to them (though it’s a mild effect).
Still, for what this is, it looks surprisingly good. The whole process may feel like overkill in some respects, but it ends up giving the film more of that finished look Baker sounds to have desired. Original source issues aside, it’s a nice-looking presentation.
The film’s stereo soundtrack is presented here in lossless PCM 2.0. The audio has apparently been redone as well, though I can’t say how it differs. The biggest surprise here is probably how well dialogue comes out sounding, coming off sharp and clear showing excellent fidelity despite it more than likely being recorded with the camera’s equipment. Street noises and other sound effects are mixed effectively and spread out sharply between the speakers. Range in the volume levels is also surprisingly wide. Not showy by any means but the presentation is more than effective.
Criterion ports over everything (short a picture gallery) from Kino’s DVD edition, starting things off with the disc’s audio commentary featuring co-directors Baker and Tsou along with actor Charles Jang. Like the film the track ends up being fairly low-tech with so-so audio quality (the microphone they’re using is on loan from a friend) but it gets the job done. The three, all recorded together, first talk about the film’s origins (covered elsewhere in the features) and how it morphed from a film about New York from a delivery man’s perspective to focussing on the plight of undocumented Chinese immigrants in the country. They go through every aspect of production, including the casting of Jang (amusingly another actor didn’t get the role because, as Tsou says, he was “too masculine,” which Jang takes slight offense to) and even how they lucked out on the weather working in their favor (it rained consistently while filming). They also touch on how they worked their way into shooting at the takeout location in the film and the difficulty around shooting there while it was operating since they couldn’t afford to pay them to shut down. Throughout they share stories around specific scenes (like the “vomit scene” near the end) and then recall the process they went through in casting the customers, which involved a Craig’s List ad and the promise of $5.
Excised footage comes up as well, including an alternate opening that featured the two gang members making their way to the protagonist’s apartment to collect what they’re owed (this is what sets off the plot). That deleted scene is included here, taken from the original MiniDV footage. In the track they mention how some likened this scene to the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters are having a general chat before entering an apartment to perform a hit. Tsou says she doesn’t see it but it does ring pretty close, the two even waiting a bit before entering the apartment. In the commentary Baker explains he liked the idea of misdirecting the audience on what the film is about, but Baker and Tsou wisely (I’d say) cut it out as the immediateness that is present in the opening works far better. There is also a second quick deleted scene around Ming Ding (Jang) hitting an opened car door, with Baker being the driver of said car.
Jang’s screen test (filmed on the street) is also included here, as is the 18-minute 2006 making of documentary around the film, which features Baker, Tsou, Jang, Jeng-hua Yu, and Wang-thye Lee. It’s a decent look at the film’s production but much better is the new 29-minute documentary produced by Criterion, Reflecting on “Take Out,” which features all five participants from that 2006 documentary. We hear again about how the film first started out and how it evolved but there’s a little more here about shooting in the takeout restaurant for a month prior to starting actual production, a lot of this footage being used as “b-roll.” It was also during this initial period where Baker and Tsou simply observed to pick up more details about the environment, which they could then incorporate into the story. There are expanded stories around other areas of the production (Jang shares more about his casting process and how he misled the directors to get the role) and Tsou and Baker both express their disappointment at how the film is still relevant today, things not changing much. I appreciate that Criterion includes both documentaries but if you were just to pick one to view I would pick this one since it benefits from a decade-and-a-half of hindsight, Baker even talking about what he would probably change today.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer while J. J. Murphy provides a short essay on the film in the included essay, covering the film and where it took Tsou’s and Baker’s careers since.
It would have been interesting to have some sort of comparison between this new restoration and the original presentation, or even something around the restoration process itself, but the material that is included (despite the fact only one feature is new) does an admirable job in covering the film’s unconventional production.
Despite the film’s MiniDV origins this new high-definition presentation still offers up an impressive image overall.