Director Hisonni Johnson Talks Through Process, Poverty and Representation in his Film, ‘Take Out Girl’

Take Out Girl is directed by Hisonni Johnson, who also has a background in writing, acting and cinematography. This women-led indie film proudly had its world premiere at Cinequest Film Festival this year. Johnson reached out to me to check out his film and review it specifically for Screen Queens. I am honoured to not only present my thoughts on his film, but to also share some of Johnson’s, who was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had upon finishing the film.

Take Out Girl stars co-writer Hedy Wong as Tera Wong, a young Asian American girl who sees an opportunity to give her family a better life by turning her delivery job at her mother’s Chinese restaurant into an illegal side-hustle in order to earn more money. This film champions diversity on and off screen, including an acting debut from Cambodian rapper, $tupid Young. Based on a true story, Johnson explains how he first came across this story and what made him want to tell it. “The premise and first draft of Take Out Girl was brought to me by Hedy Wong (our lead actress, co-writer and producer). I knew the premise was outstanding but it was Hedy’s personality that I loved and still do! I knew instantly that writing a character around her natural demeanour would be fun and easy!”

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Tera as someone who makes money on the side by selling pictures of exams to her fellow students. We do not see her face for the first few minutes of the film, as the camera only allows us to see her from the behind. This element of Tera remaining hidden continues throughout the film, as she hides beneath a baseball cap which she refuses to remove. When asked if this choice was symbolic, Johnson replied, “I’ve always seen Tera as the Indiana Jones of the Concrete Jungle and it felt really fitting to make that introduction the same way Spielberg introduced Indiana Jones to us in Raiders. I had a ton of fun paying homage to my hero Spielberg throughout the film. And yes, Tera’s hat is very symbolic to her. She uses her hat the same way Batman uses his cowl. The hat gives her the courage to traverse the toughest of situations and there is a palpable difference in Tera’s personality with the hat on versus when the hat is off.”

The following sequence that shows Tera biking home through her neighbourhood gives an up-close perspective on where she lives and the situation she is in: she speeds by cars that have been broken into and people getting arrested on the streets. Johnson paints a very realistic picture of the hopelessness many people feel as Tera bikes by an American flag, another telling symbol in this film. She arrives at Sai Kung, her family’s restaurant, where she works with her brother Saren (Lorin Alond Ly), her cousin Crystal (Mier Chasin) and her mother, Wavy (Lynna Yee). We find that her mother has badly injured her back, and constantly forgets to wear her back brace as she slaves over work she should not be doing in her condition. Immediately, it is clear what Tera’s motivation is: to give her mother a better life. When Tera goes to complete a delivery that afternoon, she encounters a man called Lalo (Ski Carr), the leader of a small crime organisation. She takes the initiative to offer her services to him and his group: she delivers their products to their clients under the guise of delivering Chinese food, in exchange for a percentage of their profits. From then on, the film follows Tera’s journey as she risks everything to save her family, as well as the inevitable consequences of her actions. 

One of the best aspects of this film is Hedy Wong’s performance as Tera. Wong plays Tera as a girl who can obviously hold her own; she is courageous to a fault, she is fiercely smart and independent, but she is not as invincible as she makes herself out to be. When her mother is not around, her desperation causes her to break down. Tera’s relationship with her mother is at the heart of Take Out Girl. Johnson explained that his inspiration for this was inspired by his own experience with his mother. “When I was ten, my mother’s back gave out. She was in unbearable pain and needed fusion and decompression surgery on several discs. I went from being a normal kid to an in-home carer in what felt like an instant. What I remember most about the experience of taking care of my mother was this sense of things getting worse and not better. That I never had what I needed to make her feel and better. I would have done anything to stop my mother from crying.”

Johnson takes risks with his varying shots in this film, one of those shots that stood out was an overhead shot of Tera’s car as she was driving that showed the broken headlight. This utilisation of different camera angles and perspectives always made the film interesting to look at. When I asked Johnson how his background in cinematography influenced these choices, he said, “Alberto Triana (co-cinematographer) and I set out to use each shot efficiently. We packed the film with constant reminders that Tera’s life was more dangerous and desperate than ‘normal.’ I’m grateful that Alberto and I complement one another so well. We both come from low-income families and knew the look of that world. We’re both storytellers with off-kilter perspectives. Because of that, there was no shortage of creative places to rig the camera.” Take Out Girl is overall an impressive feat. It is a devastating, real look at an environment in which those within it feel as if there is no other way out for them and their families. At one point, Crystal points out the reality that their neighbourhood will not allow them to do anything more than what they already are doing. They are stuck in an unbreakable cycle that Tera feels she can only break by illegally working with Lalo, a reality for so many. The beauty of Take Out Girl is that it is not here to make judgement on those who are committing these acts, rather it empathises with its characters who are all ultimately trying to find a way out.

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