With Four Stars You Get Egg Roll

Chinese Take-Away (Un cuento chino)
(Argentina/Spain, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Sebastián Borensztein
Starring: Ricardo Darín, Ignacio Hun, Muriel Santa Ana.
This quaint little Argentine film first makes a stopover in China before jetting viewers to Buenos Aires. Chinese Take-Away opens with a scene that is part Magnolia and part absurd fairy tale. Jun (Ignacio Hun) has whisked his girlfriend away for a romantic boat ride. Set against the sumptuous lake and the overwhelming magnitude of the mountains (thanks, Shannon), Jun’s date is the most romantic setting imaginable to propose marriage; however, just before Jun pops the question, the proposal is interrupted by a cow. The helpless bovine descends straight from the sky, plummeting downwards akin to a hailstorm of frogs. The cow lands right on Jun’s fiancée, smashing the boat and, presumably, her. A bull's-eye, if you’ll pardon the pun. 

The story then migrates to Buenos Aires and introduces Roberto (played by Ricardo Darín from the 2009 Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes). Roberto is the bitter old owner of a small hardware store. A Latin-American Ebenezer Scrooge, Roberto performs an inventory on each item that enters his store. If a box of 350 screws contains only 347, he calls the factory and raises hell.

His personally life is equally pitiable. Old and alone, Roberto recedes from society and lives only with his memories and personal trinkets. He’s also a creature of habit, as he does ‘lights out’ every night at 11:00 on the dot. Some people are just stuck in their old ways.

By some coincidental happenstance, however, the lives of Jun and Roberto intersect in Buenos Aires. Roberto witnesses Jun be the victim of an assault and robbery when a taxi driver takes his money and dumps him at the side of the road. Roberto rushes over and asks Jun if he’s okay. Jun offers a look of bewilderment: he doesn’t speak Spanish. He responds in Cantonese, but, naturally, Roberto doesn’t follow. (And the film withholds sub-titles to ensure that you don’t, either.) The Argentine does what most people do when trying to communicate with a foreign language: he simply repeats the phrase louder and exaggerates the phonetics as if Jun is deaf or an idiot.

Language barrier aside, Roberto convinces Jun to accept a ride from a stranger. Using some gestures and simple human decency, Roberto gets Jun all cleaned up and takes him home so that they can sort things out with the proper authorities. The short answer of their series of miscommunications is that Roberto eventually learns that Jun is in search of a long lost uncle. When they approach the police and embassy for help, however, all Roberto sees is an indifferent desire to remove Jun from the country. Forget why he came to Argentina, they say, send him back to China. Unwilling to see Jun become the victim of intolerance, Roberto allows him to stay at his place until he can be reunited with his uncle.
Unlike the unbelievable buddy journey of Doppelgänger Paul, the pairing of the crotchety old Argentine and the bashful Chinaman is plausible farce. (Even more surprising is the fact that the film is based on a true report.) Chinese Take-Away shows that even the most fanciful and coincidental premise gains credibility through the strong development of story and character. Rather than offer empty philosophy, Chinese Take-Away invests the audience in the story of one man who is content to live his life as an island, blind to the needs and wants of others, especially a potential love interest played by Muriel Santa Ana. It helps, too, that Ricardo Darín offers a richly humorous performance as the grumpy Roberto: this old school man is a perfect vessel to teach viewers the lessons of the contemporary world.

The living arrangement between Roberto and Jun is, not surprisingly, a humorous tale of culture clashes and funny situations. Roberto has lived as a hermit for almost forty years, but he now must share his home and habits with someone who is completely alien to his tics. Chinese Take-Away mixes sketch comedy with a hearty musing on globalisation. The film raises questions of class and mobility via Roberto’s failed interactions with Jun and his customers, including one regular whose endless ignorance offends Roberto to no end.
Writer/director Sebastián Borensztein gives Roberto an emphatic wake-up call, though, and teaches the audience that nobody should live in isolation. As the early scenes show, Roberto has a peculiar hobby that prompts him to read international newspapers and select humorous stories of coincidence and fate. He imagines his own life being solved by such chance, and Borensztein offers some playful Amélie-ish daydream sequences in which Roberto escapes by fantasizing about the pain of others. What Roberto doesn’t know, however, is that his own life is writing such a story and that he himself is but one of many people around the globe coping with changes brought by circumstance, not choice. As the old man learns of his place in the world, he begins to see the absurdity of his own life. For a film so unabashedly humanist and light-hearted, Chinese Take-Away could have easily been a trite and heavy-handed morality lesson. Instead, Chinese Take-Away is a genuinely hilarious and heart-warming fable of the era in which we live.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★

 ***Note: My appreciation of this film was somewhat hampered by the two chatty old bitties who attended the CFI screening. Not even Roberto could be so ignorant, for no amount of dirty looks, head turns, and “BE QUIET!”s could silence these two ladies, who felt themselves entitled to comment throughout the entirety of the film, which, they should know, was the one only film I was able to see during the entire Latin American Film Festival. Shame on them. One day, I resolve the gain the courage to grab theatre patrons by their hair and slam their faces into the back side of seats. On the other hand, it could speak to the strength of the film that I enjoyed it in spite such disrespectful patrons.***

Chinese Take-Away screened in Ottawa as the closing night selection of the Latin American Film Festival presented by the Canadian Film Institute.