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TWO SEAN BAKER FILMS SYMPATHIZE WITH "ILLEGAL" IMMIGRANTS
by Thomas M. Sipos, Managing Editor [February 28, 2009]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] Indie director Sean Baker had two films nominated for a John Cassavetes Award this year: Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) and Prince of Broadway. Two films, one theme: the hardships illegal immigrants suffer while trying to earn a living under the radar in the U.S.
The log line on Take Out's poster summarizes its plot like a Hollywood pitch: "One Illegal Immigrant. One Smuggling Debt. One Day to Pay Up."
Ming Ding (Charles Jang) lives in a New York apartment crammed (in violation of housing codes) with multiple families. Two Chinese gangsters pay an early morning visit, demanding the $1800 Ming owes Mr. Jiang, his smuggler. That's just for today.
Ming only has $1000. He pleads the interest is too high. He had to send money home to China, and can't save anything. The gangsters give Ming until tonight to find $800. If not, his debt will double. If so, then perhaps Jiang will reduce the interest rate.
Then the gangsters slam a hammer against Ming's back. "So you will never forget your payment."
This is a recurring theme in both of Baker's films. Illegal immigrants are easy prey for violent criminals. Ming can't go to the police. What would he say? The gangsters who smuggled me into the U.S. are threatening me?
After borrowing $650 from friends, Ming must earn $150 in tips in one day, delivering take-out Chinese food across Manhattan on his bicycle.
It's raining. His bicycle breaks at one point. He persists. He often receives only loose change for his efforts. He doesn't speak English well. (Most of Take Out's dialog is in Chinese, with subtitles). Customers mistake Ming's silence for unfriendliness.
There's another theme. Culture clash. Ming's best friend at the take-out restaurant, Young (an engaging performance by Jeng-Hua Yu), tells Ming that he must smile and say "Thank you very much!" to get bigger tips. Ming doesn't get it. He's not happy, so why should he smile? He ignores Young's advice, presumably because in China people cast their eyes to the ground to show respect. Ming doubts that Americans would pay more to see a huge grin. It's disrespectful.
Take Out was shot on digital video, verité style, in a real take-out restaurant during working hours, with unknown actors and amateurs. The film has a gritty, documentary feel. Much of the dialog appears improvised.
The ending rings false. A sudden, Hollywood style, big tragedy. Then a sudden, Hollywood style, happy ending. Even so, Take Out is an absorbing slice-of-life film, depicting the hardships of people that Americans see every day, without really seeing.
Prince of Broadway is the story of Lucky (Prince Abu), an illegal immigrant from Ghana who works as a New York street hustler. He brings shoppers into Levon's back room, where they can purchase counterfeit merchandise. Handbags, clothing, sneakers, all of it bearing false trademarks.
Libertarians disagree about intellectual property rights. The late anarchist, Samuel E. Konkin III, believed that intellectual property did not exist. Other libertarians think IP should be absolute and never expire. Current law is somewhere in between.
Lucky doesn't think about it. As with Ming's delivery tips, hustling counterfeit merchandise is a cash operation. When you're here illegally, you stay under the radar.
His boss, Levon (Karren Karagulian), is a Lebanese-Armenian who got his green card by marrying an American. Levon loves his younger wife, but she leaves him midway into the film, insisting that theirs was always a marriage of convenience
One day, Lucky's ex-girlfriend, Linda (Kat Sanchez), drops off an 18-month-old boy with Lucky, insisting he's the father. Lucky disputes this, but Linda drives off and disappears. Lucky is stuck with the boy. He'd like to give the kid to a social worker, but again, he's "illegal." He can't go to the government for help.
Lucky names the boy "Prince," after his childhood dog. Having no daycare options, Lucky takes Prince on his hustlings, making for some comic moments. During a dispute with an unhappy customer who returns an item, the customer says, "You know how I know I bought this here? This is the only store on Broadway with a baby working with you guys."
Cops raid the store. They release customers with a warning. "Don't do this again. It's illegal." Every hustler in the back room claims to also be a customer. Lucky is released. Since he has a kid, the cops assume Lucky really is a customer. Levon is arrested.
Prince of Broadway ends on a poignant note. Still pining for his child-free, single days, Lucky gets a DNA test to see if he really is Prince's father. Too nervous to read the results, he asks Levon to read it. We see the letter, full of technical terms and numbers, but can't discern the answer. Spoiler alert...
Levon announces that Lucky is a father. Lucky beams, unexpectedly happy with the result. "Now I feel it," he says. "For real. That's the reason I didn't want to throw him away. My father, he was always there for me. I put him through hell. He was always there for me."
Seeing Lucky's joy, Levon pockets the letter. It's an ambiguous act. Is Lucky the father? Or did Levon lie? His wife having left him, does Levon more fully appreciate human connections? Did he tell Lucky what he thinks was in Lucky's best interest?
The final shot is of Lucky walking down Manhattan, carrying Prince, with his new American girlfriend beside him.
Prince of Broadway won the Grand Jury Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and additional film festival awards at Woodstock, Locarno, Torino, and Belfort.
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