Across antipodes, life’s absurdities find a home in the 2011 Argentine comedy-drama Chinese Take-Away (trailer). Starring renowned Argentine actor Ricardo Darín and the Taiwanese-Argentine Ignacio Huang, the movie tells a comfortably touching story of meaning lost in both translation and existence’s other vicissitudes.
The film opens with a freak accident: In Fujian Province, a cow falls from the sky just as Chinese craftsman Qian Jun (Huang) is about to propose to his fiancee, striking her dead and leaving him distraught. With nothing left to live for in China, Jun journeys to Argentina to find his uncle. Unfortunately, upon arriving in Buenos Aires he is robbed and left with nothing more than the clothes on his back and an address written on his arm. Enter Roberto (Darín), a fussy hardware store owner who revels in solitude. Roberto discovers Jun on the side of the road and reluctantly agrees to help; he quickly ends up getting more than he bargains for.
As it turns out, the address on Jun’s arm is outdated and his uncle nowhere to be found. Thus, to Roberto’s immense annoyance, the two must live together while the Chinese embassy attempts to resolve the issue. The fact that neither can understand the other’s language helps with nothing except driving home one of the film’s main themes: that trying to understand life’s illogical idiosyncrasies is fruitless. Despite physical proximity, Roberto and Jun live in isolation as the world ticks crazily on by. They sit silently together as Roberto clips absurd articles from newspapers, and Roberto struggles to sleep down the hallway whilst Jun laments the tragedy he’s fled from.
Eventually, through both actions and words, the barrier of understanding between the two falls lower, but not completely. We begin to see immense depth in the crabbed Roberto, strength in the unflagging Jun, and commonality across both. Finding meaning where there is none, extracting companionship out of seclusion—the film attempts and mostly succeeds at these efforts.
Despite its absurdist undertones, Chinese Take-Away is not structurally complex and is in fact rather easy to follow. Admittedly, I may be biased since I understand Mandarin and therefore all of Jun’s lines (even though the filmmakers purposely decided not to subtitle them). However, Mandarin comprehension may not actually be helpful; those without such ability can better understand a more important component of the film’s package: Roberto and Jun’s frustration. The film is intuitive, and even its minor flaws eventually contribute to this spirit; for instance a running romantic subplot involving Roberto and an ex-lover constantly feels somewhat contrived but, after a bit of thought, does add overall value to Roberto’s character development.
As a friendly foreign explanation of the not-so-friendly foreignness of life, Chinese Take-Away is a recommended order. There’s something for everyone: laughs for the lighthearted, darkness for the cynical, and a taste of someplace else for the world-hungry.
Chinese Take-Away (Spanish: Un cuento chino)—Argentina. Directed by Sebastián Borensztein. First released March 2011. Running time 1hr 33min. Starring Ricardo Darín, Ignacio Huang, and Muriel Santa Ana.