Two years after the release of Man Push Cart (2005), writer/director Ramin Bahrani followed it with Chop Shop (2007), a thematic continuation of the immigrant story he began with Ahmad the Pakistani food cart owner. Though actor Ahmad Razvi does return as Ahmad, it’s not the same character, Chop Shop is a different type of story. While it does follow an immigrant in pursuit of the American Dream, the focus here is the young boy Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) whose daily hustles include construction jobs, selling bootleg DVDs, selling car parts, and anything else he can do to make money in order to make a better life for himself and his older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales). As usual, Bahrani presents a version of America that goes unseen or unacknowledged by the majority, one in which the viewpoint of the immigrant is of endless drive and a willingness to do what most American-born are unwilling. While less traditional in its narrative than Man Push Cart, Chop Shop is no less compelling in its seemingly wayward dramatic look at adolescent immigrants.
Alejandro is all about the hustle. If he’s not trying to sneak his way onto a construction gig by hiding in the back of a truck, he’s riding subway cars with his buddy Carlos (Carlos Zapata) selling candy bars. When he’s all done there, he’s helping Jamaica Auto Glass owner Rob (Rob Sowulski) around the shop: buffing cars, finding replacement parts, or cleaning. Each job is an opportunity to earn so that he can purchase a food truck that he and his newly returned older sister Isamar can run together. His dream of being his own boss keeps him motivated, but being a kid always on the hustle means that there are some things you don’t have the experience to plan for.
The first film Bahrani wrote with frequent collaborator Bahareh Azimi (Goodbye Solo, 99 Homes, Fahrenheit 451) is far more indicative of the real America than Man Push Cart presents. Ahmad’s story in Man Push Cart is certainly an authentic immigrant experience, but the story within Chop Shop feels less dramatized (and that film is hardly dramatic) and more documentary in execution. You could certainly hear a myriad of stories if you were to chat with your local street vendors, but, Bahrani insists in the previously linked 2007 interview that if you were to go to Willet’s Point Queens where the film was shot, you’d see everything as it appeared on film. Although as of 2008 it may look different due to redevelopment, the point remains true. Alejandro, his sister, and Ahmad may be fictional, but their lives are not. Rob actually ran the auto body shop and worked with Polanco for months ahead of shooting to get him used to using the tools. The details of people living in the garages or in broken down cars near their shops, discussed in the new commentary track with Bahrani and the cast, are inspired by what Bahrani saw himself and discovered before shooting. According the 2006 commentary, Bahrani would give his cast central points that a scene needed to get to and then let them decide how to get there. Bahrani specifically mentions a moment where Ahmad manipulates his phone as the actor actually getting a call and Razvi working it into the scene. The incorporation of real moments amid a real location create an aura of candor, making the socio-economic and interpersonal conflicts all the more thrilling and painful. Like with Man Push Cart, Chop Shop is not a film which manufactures its drama as real life can be dramatic enough without some giant obstacle. Instead, it’s the feeling of being on the cusp of getting your dream, what happens when that’s threatened, and what you do as a result that pushes the action forward. One can’t help but consider how native-born Americans would behave in the same position as Alejandro. Would they hustle day-in-day-out or would they just break down instead? These notions are better articulated in the essay from novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen so make sure not to skip it when you pick up your copy.
Chop Shop marks the second Criterion release (Man Push Cart comes available the same day as spine #1066) and appears to be given a similar remastering process. So while this is not a 2K or 4K restoration, Chop Shop’s original 1.78:1 aspect ratio is preserved, remastered to look modern by 2021 standards, and comes equip with new 5.1 surround sound DTS-HD audio mix. In my viewing, I set the receiver to “Drama” and let the film go, enveloping me in the sounds of Willet’s Point Queens, New York, transporting me to a part of the world I’d never seen before. This is, I think, the point of both of Bahrani’s films. Not to spotlight or showcase, but to invite audiences in to observe and learn about another way of living. The look and sound of Chop Shop are incredibly inviting, allowing for an immersive experience.
The bonus features are fairly straight-forward, offering two previously available pieces from 2006 and two new ones. The prior materials are a feature-length commentary from Bahrani, cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and Polanco and rehearsal footage of Polanco, Gonzales, and Zapata. The new materials are a 22-minute conversation between Bahrani, Polanco, Razvi, and assistant director Nicholas Elliott and a 26-minute conversation between Bahrani and scholar Suketu Mehta. If you’re feeling a bit like a time warp, check out either the rehearsal footage or audio commentary and then jump to the new conversation including Polanco. In your mind you can acknowledge that the film is about 14 years old and that Polanco was roughly 11 at the time of filming, but to hear his adolescent voice in one moment and then as an adult in another is a bit shocking. In my case, it was because I jumped from the film proper into the new conversation and the tenor shift was like whiplash. Outside of that temporal shock, both new featurettes are fascinating with one focused on the casting and production process and the other more focused on the immigrant experience. Given Bahrani’s approach in both Man Push Cart and Chop Shop regarding narrative and direction is more natural and spontaneous, getting to listen to how they approached the making of the film from a technical and thematic perspective is worth the admission.
While I didn’t find Chop Shop as profound as Man Push Cart, there’s no denying its authenticity, a proper showcase for the tenacity of the immigrant spirit. This is, of course, trying to put a positive spin on a lifestyle that sees one 11-year-old and one 16-year-old living in a small room at a garage, neither in school, and each trying hard to work themselves into the American Dream. It’s dour in a way that doesn’t unsettle but certainly should reposition ones outlook on those who come to our country. Far too often native-borns take for granted what we have and presume too much about others. That’s what’s fantastic about Chop Shop, and even Man Push Cart, Bahrani doesn’t look down. He captures the stories with sincerity, bestowing a kind of grace on his characters.
Chop Shop Feature Features
- High-definition digital master, supervised and approved by director Ramin Bahrani, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2006 featuring Bahrani, director of photography Michael Simmonds, and actor Alejandro Polanco
- *New* program featuring a conversation among Bahrani, Polanco, actor Ahmad Razvi, and assistant director Nicholas Elliott about the making of the film (22:21)
- *New* conversation between Bahrani and writer and scholar Suketu Mehta on the immigrant experience in New York City and on film (26:47)
- Rehearsal footage from 2006 featuring Polanco and actors Isamar Gonzales and Carlos Zapata
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen
- New cover by La Moutique
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection February 23rd, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.