Choking Man is straight up New York. Not in the same way that Annie Hall or Bonfire of the Vanities is oh-so New York, but in a more outer-borough, real-life, by-no-means-glamorous kind of way. Not to mention that it’s so expertly evocative of the immigrant experience — and the restaurant business — in this city that the premiere of the film couldn’t have been better timed.
The bulk of the narrative takes place in Jamaica, Queens, identified in the film as the most culturally diverse location on the planet, in the quintessentially New York institution of a diner. The Olympic Diner is a melting pot of its own, bringing together a Greek owner, an Irish-American chef, Dutch regular, Chinese waitress, and Ecuadorian dishwasher, among others, chronicling their daily interactions, imperfections, miscommunications, and missed opportunities.
The film’s anti-hero is Jorge, a painfully shy dishwasher from Ecuador, expertly portrayed by Octavio Gómez Berrios, who actually spent months working as a dishwasher in preparation for the role. We follow Jorge in his daily routine between the diner in Queens and his apartment in El Barrio. Jorge utters all of maybe fifty words throughout the entire film, but it’s his silence, his looks, and his awkwardness — along with occasional, animated, dream-like sequences (that were actually extremely well done) — that communicate his personality and anxiety to us.
We witness the action in the film as he witnesses it, passively, observantly, and — most importantly — anonymously, as he silently falls in love with Amy, the sweet and amicable Chinese waitress played by Eugenia Yuan (Mail Order Wife), and battles (also silently) with Jerry (Aaron Paul), the bully ex-con-cum-chef who ultimately wins Amy’s heart by mere virtue of his loud, uninhibited nature, the very antithesis of Jorge.
It is the notion of Jorge’s silence and anonymity that is the underlying theme throughout the film, ultimately linking the anonymous status of an immigrant in this country to the anonymous place the ubiquitous "Choking Victim" poster occupies in New York restaurants. The two themes collide when Jorge ends up being the only person in the Olympic Diner to remember the instructions on the poster and saves a customer’s life.
But Jorge’s real battle is with what director Steve Barron calls his "demons," personified by a an imaginary roommate character who mocks and belittles Jorge in a bizarrely sexual way every night upon returning home to his apartment. This alter-ego/conscience is one of Choking Man’s only flaws. The literal story is strong enough by itself, and this embodiment of Jorge’s internal turmoil comes off as superfluous and just plain weird. This, and the fact that Jorge lives by himself in a studio apartment in El Barrio on a dishwasher’s pay, are the only implausible aspects of the film.
The film’s acting is superb — with special kudos to Gómez Berrios, Yuan, and Mandy Patinkin, who plays the owner of the diner, and to Barron himself who wrote the characters so incredibly realistically. The cinematography is great, also. Creating a visual experience consisting of mostly close ups — of people, puddles, food, buildings, ketchup — and vivid color contrasts, Antoine Vivas Denisov captures the beauty of a part of New York rarely thought of in a positive light, if thought of at all. And as an audience member at the premiere screening on Wednesday commented, "The puking scene was worth the price of the ticket." Even that is somehow beautiful.