'Chinese Takeaway'

A gentle comedy about a curmudgeon, a Chinese man and a cow that falls from the sky, "Chinese Takeaway" is tasty while it lasts but not very filling.

A gentle comedy about a curmudgeon, a Chinese man and a cow that falls from the sky, “Chinese Takeaway” is tasty while it lasts but not very filling. This small-scale, appealingly quirky third feature from Sebastian Borensztein is slow to get going, and struggles to squeeze maximum drama from its tale of mutual incomprehension. However, its warm heart, affecting final act and a gold-plated perf by the reliable Ricardo Darin (“The Secret in Their Eyes”) are still enough to bring “Takeaway” home. Offshore play in Darin-friendly territories is guaranteed, while its universally appealing cross-cultural theme has remake potential.

Perennially irritable Roberto runs a hardware store where he spends his time counting the nails in boxes and then angrily calling the manufacturer when the tally doesn’t correspond with the number on the packaging. If auds suspect Roberto’s grumpiness derives from a history we don’t yet know about, they would be right.

Roberto’s hobby is collecting unusual clippings from newspapers that reaffirm his sense of life’s absurdity. His own existence is routine and solitary: He visits his parents’ graves, speaks to few people apart from clients whom he treats disdainfully, and to Mari (Muriel Santa Ana), a former flame from the countryside who has come to Buenos Aires with the sole aim of winning him back.

One day, Roberto sees a Chinese man, Jun (Huang Sheng Huang), being thrown out of the back of a cab. Against his better judgment, Roberto helps him out, and Jun, who has been sent to Argentina to find a relative who will give him work, ends up living with Roberto. Much of the rest of pic describes Roberto’s increasingly desperate attempts to get rid of his new housemate.

Meanwhile, the pic dramatizes the absurd human-interest stories from Roberto’s clippings, including, significantly, the one about the cow falling from the sky (which is, if final credits footage is to be believed, true).

Past and present come together in a wonderfully played climax featuring just Roberto, Jun and a translator around a table.

Darin gives an unsmiling, buttoned-down perf as Roberto. At one point, the besotted Mari tells Roberto that he has “nobility and pain” in his bearing, and it’s testimony to Darin’s ability that those qualities are just visible behind his impassive features. But even the thesp’s beautifully offhand comic delivery, and some sharply observed scenes opposite the efficient Huang, can’t hide the fact that over the first hour, things are in bad need of another dramatic thread.

Pic’s upbeat though dubious message is that lack of language needn’t be a barrier to a relationship — although thankfully, the experience, far from completely transforming Roberto as would happen in a more sentimental script, merely nuances his worldview.

On print caught, there were no Chinese subtitles — presumably a ploy to cement aud identification with Roberto, but it’s a gambit that instead just eliminates the chance of connecting with Jun’s plight. Pic could hardly be accused of racism, but it never scratches the surface of Chinese culture, and Jun ends up falling victim to the cliche of the inscrutable Chinaman.

The score by Lucio Godoy is blandly jaunty.

Chinese Takeaway

Argentina-Spain

Production

An Alta Films release (in Spain) of a Tornasol Films, Castafiore Films, Aliwood Mediterraneo Producciones, Pampa Films production. (International sales: Latido Films, Madrid.) Produced by Gerardo Herrero, Juan Pablo Buscarini, Pablo Bossi, Isabel Garcia Peralta. Executive producer, Mariela Besuievsky. Directed, written by Sebastian Borensztein.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Rodrigo Pulpeiro; editor, Fernando Pardo; music, Lucio Godoy; art directors, Laura Musso, Valeria Ambrossio; sound (Dolby Digital), Eduardo Esquide. Reviewed at Alta Films Screening Room, Madrid, May 4, 2011. (In Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Ricardo Darin, Huang Sheng Huang, Muriel Santa Ana, Enric Rodriguez, Ivan Romanelli. (Spanish, Mandarin dialogue)

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