The Argentine film Chinese Take-Away tells the familiar story of the displaced immigrant reluctantly adopted by a native loner. Versions of this fable have been told in films like The Visitor and Le Havre. Chinese Take Away, written and directed by Sebastián Borenzstein and opening Friday at the Capitol Theatre, is a particularly lovely expression of the tale.
The story centers on Roberto (Ricardo Darín, of The Secret in Their Eyes), a flinty Buenos Aires hardware store proprietor who curses at annoying customers and methodically counts out nails because he is convinced his suppliers are cheating him. He collects little glass animals to honor his dead mother, and seeks weird stories from the newspaper, which he clips and pastes into a special scrapbook. Roberto claims that "Life is absurd, a huge ball of nonsense," an attitude derived in part from his bitter experience fighting in the Malvinas (Falklands). He rebuffs the warm overtures of his pretty friend Mari (Muriel Santa Ana), with whom he once shared a night of passion and who is in love with him.
Out of a taxi and into Roberto's life falls a hapless young Chinese man, Jun (Ignacio Huang), who has landed in Buenos Aires after a bizarre trauma in which a cow fell from the sky and sank his boat, killing his fiancée. The event, which happens to be one of the absurd stories Roberto has collected, is based on an actual incident involving Russian cattle thieves and a Japanese fishing boat.
Jun doesn't speak a word of Spanish, and Roberto, moved by compassion but constrained by an irascible temperament, tries to help the young man locate his uncle. His efforts to get assistance from the Chinese embassy and find the uncle are unsuccessful, and Roberto is so impatient to be rid of the well-meaning young foreigner, he sets a deadline for Jun's departure, methodically crossing off each day on a calendar. The language barrier is a considerable problem, until the sympathetic Mari enlists a Chinese restaurant delivery boy to translate. Jun expresses his gratitude for Roberto's help, and gradually, Roberto comes to see that life is not as random and ludicrous as he believed.
Borensztein's script is nicely judged, resisting easy sentiment and implausible character transformations. He makes amusing use of fantasy sequences in which Roberto's "news of the weird" stories are dramatized, with Roberto as protagonist. The attractive color palette, thoughtfully designed interiors and persuasive, low-key acting add to the film's considerable charm.