Chinese Take-Away

By 15 April, 2012

Chinese Take-Away (Un Cuento Chino) claims to be a story based on real events but our credulity is quickly put to the test in an opening scene where a lovely looking engagement is interrupted by a plummeting ruminant. Of all the ways to breathe fresh light into a proposal scenario, a cow falling from the sky is certainly an original one. The soon-to-be-fiancée is instantly killed and the scene is set for a strangely toned film about wordless conversation and cosmic serendipity.

Roberto (Ricardo Darín) is a grumpy owner of a hardware store who has both the time and the inclination to count every nail in every box. He is not quite your typical shopkeeping curmudgeon, however, because he is always at great pains to do good, giving even the most annoying of customers a couple of freebie nails without question.

He is best summed up in a letter from a would-be lover, Mari (Muriel Santa Ana), who says that there are two aspects of personality which she can quickly recognise in people:

“Integrity and suffering, and you have them both.”

Roberto’s benevolence and patience are put to the test on encountering Jun (Ignacio Huang), the Chinese proposer from the earlier bovine scene, who is chucked out of a taxi kicking and ranting in a strange foreign tongue. He is stranded in Argentina without a word of Spanish and just an address tattooed on his arm. Roberto, very kindly takes him to the address only to find that its previous Chinese owner is long gone; that the police are unhelpful and disrespectful; and that the embassy, although promising to search for his estranged uncle, will need a few days and can’t sort Jun any accommodation in the meantime. Very reluctantly, Roberto brings el chino into his home. But this intrusion on Roberto’s idiosyncratic habits starts to grate.

The interaction and uneasy relationship between host and guest is fun to watch unfold as although it is essentially a sitcom between a misanthrope and a mute, it becomes quite heart-warming to see Roberto perform out of a very strong sense of duty towards this awkward but eternally grateful young man.

Both the plot and the characters are better than they need to be. The style almost lends into being that of a twee romcom like Amélie. It has the same kind of mysterious soundtrack which tries to evoke both bright and magical wonder as well as a cautious sense of dread; and Sebastián Borensztein has even managed to make the streets of Buenos Aires look like the muted pastels of the City of Lights itself. Fortunately it is nowhere as sugary as it could have been, and you don’t even begrudge the rather cheap looking CGI as it is pretty much justified by the audaciousness and ambitiousness of the premise.

The film shows that while you can get by, and even become friends with just gestures and looks, you need a common language to get to the bottom of what really makes people tick. Just before they part, and with the help of a translator from the local takeaway, we find out that Roberto thinks that life is intrinsically stupid and absurd. He proves this through his obsession about collecting unusual newspaper clippings which describe strange and tragic accidents. Jun is more optimistic and believes that everything happens for a reason. This again, would point towards the themes encountered in Amélie and after about an hour and a half of not thinking about the reason why this poor guy has left his own country, the film clicks neatly into place, like we all knew it would all along.

Perhaps even more interesting is Roberto’s shadowy background. We eventually learn where his subtle anti-English sentiments come from. It has nothing to do with Diego Maradona, football, or even BSE; but rather a certain set of islands which he once visited a couple of decades ago.

Chinese Take-Away is showing as part of the 1st Argentine Film Festival of London, which will be taking place between April 19th-22nd at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton. See for more details.

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