Chinese Take-Away, or Un Cuento Chino, is a 2011 Argentinean dramatic comedy by director Sebastián Borensztein. I caught this film on Sunday night as part of the 34th Annual Latin American Film Series at UWM.
The film tells the story of Roberto (Ricardo Darín), a hardware store owner turned bitter by past trauma that we learn about later in the film. When he happens to see Jun (Ignacio Huang), a Chinese man who speaks no Spanish, thrown violently from a taxi cab, Roberto offers to give the man a ride to an address tattooed on Jun’s arm. Through an arduous process of discovery, it is revealed that Jun is searching for his uncle, who no longer lives at said address. Roberto agrees to help Jun to search for a limited period of time, though of course things turn more complicated than predicted. Roberto and Jun are aided by Mari (Muriel Santa Ana), an acquaintance who is openly in love with Roberto, though her feelings are not reciprocated.
The acting in this film is fantastic. Early in the movie, I quickly fell in love with Darín’s hilariously sardonic depiction of Roberto. He spends his work day abusing his customers counting individual nails in boxes that are delivered to his shop and yelling his provider over the phone if any are missing. He lives alone, feeding himself blood sausage and testicles, and spends his evening clipping morose and absurd stories from a newspaper and pasting them into scrapbooks. His acting is truly superb, and I look forward to seeking him out in other films.
Other actors are equally compelling. Although we’ve seen this story before, in which two unlikely compatriots are forced to join their lives for a period, Darín and Huang bring a level of depth and vulnerability to the roles that makes their relationship fresh and exciting. Their characters are like oil and water, yet their chemistry is organic and sincere. Santa Ana’s Mari is also wonderful, providing the life-loving counterpoint to Roberto’s bleak absurdist outlook.
I will go on record as saying that, at times, the depiction of the Chinese characters in the film made me somewhat uncomfortable. There are several jokes made at the expense of Chinese and Asian stereotypes, including mispronunciations made even more awkward by the fact that the mispronounced words needed to be spelled out in the subtitled, with multiple “l”s replacing “r”s. By the end of the film, however, I was convincedthat in reality these scenes were meant to portray Roberto’s perception of the characters, illustrating his growing resistance and racism throughout the beginning and middle of the film, and ultimately embracing a more enlightened understanding towards the end. Still though, there were moments that gave me pause.
This is a story about self-discovery and about challenging one’s world view, and it is as moving as it is bitterly comical. The characters are all relatable and endearing, yet you will still be laughing throughout the entire film. Of the films I’ve seen so far at the UWM Latin American Film Series, this is definitely my favorite.