Choking Man

2007, Movie, NR, 84 mins


Remember that video for Norwegian one-hit wonders A-Ha's one hit, "Take on Me?" The one in which the Rotoscoped lead singer pulls the lonely diner patron through the pages of her comic book and into his cartoon world? That classic video was directed by an Irish filmmaker named Steve Barron, and even though he went on to make such feature films as ELECTRIC DREAMS and -- who could forget -- CONEHEADS, Barron will probably be best known for that classic bit of pop promotional material. This modest, low-budget independent drama set in the downscale outer boroughs of New York City probably won't change matters, but it's eerily atmospheric and marks an interesting change in direction.

Jorge (Octavio Gomez) is a debilitatingly shy Ecuadorian dishwasher at the Jamaica, Queens, diner owned and operated by gregarious Greek Rick (Mandy Patinkin), who likes to boast that more languages are spoken in one spare foot of his neighborhood than anywhere else in the world. But even in this rich, multicultural new home, Jorge, who keeps his wool cap pulled down over half face in a vain attempt to disappear, feels like an alien in the truest sense: He can barely bring himself to speak to anyone at work, he's teased mercilessly by Jerry (Aaron Paul), a loud, bullying short-order cook, and after the diner closes for the night, Jorge returns home to a lonely, decrepit East Harlem apartment. But Jorge isn't entirely alone: Waiting for him each night on the couch is his "roommate" (Paolo Andino), a suave, Spanish-speaking figment of Jorge's imagination who smoothly articulates all the rage, frustration and feelings of worthlessness Jorge can't. The sole light in Jorge's life is Amy (the utterly charming Eugenia Yuan), a chirpy new Chinese waitress who goes out of her way to be kind to the diner's silent dishwasher. When she thoughtfully gives Jorge a Spanish newspaper a customer has left behind, Jorge's roommate urges him to reciprocate by buying her something nice. And when it seems as if Jorge, who has fallen deeply in love with Amy, is about to lose her to the obnoxious Jerry, the man on the couch urges Jorge on to far more drastic measures.

The creepy-crawly mood that hangs over this effective little drama is quite a change of pace for a man who brought us the first TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES movie, but his keen visual style isn't too far from Barron's award-winning music video work. He even uses a bit of Rotoscoping to introduce some fantasy elements into Jorge's grim world: Clipped hairs on a barbershop floor and blobs of ketchup running off a plate under the faucet of Jorge's sink are transmogrified into fanciful animated interludes. The whole thing feels as if it were pulled directly from the warped psyche of its deeply alienated protagonist, and builds to its conclusion with an unsettling intensity reminiscent of Roman Polanksi. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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