In addition to directing pretty much every great music video of the 1980s, including Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and A-ha's "Take On Me," Irish director Steve Barron has racked up an electic list of credits from cult favorite Electric Dreams to Coneheads. Choking Man is a big departure from the music and sci-fi work he's best known for. A humble slice of immigrant blue-collar life in Queens, New York, the movie rises above the mundane with the inclusion of some gorgeous animated interludes and just a touch of Latin American-style magical realism.
Life isn't easy for Ecuadorian dishwasher Jorge (Octavio Gómez), who works at the Olympic diner under the management of a beneficent boss played by Mandy Patinkin. Jorge is painfully shy and almost mute in his loneliness. All he does is wash dishes and sleep, moving from work to hovel with his head hung low and his hat pulled down. His humdrum existence is shaken by the arrival of a vivacious new Chinese immigrant waitress named Amy (Eugenia Yuan) who couldn't be sweeter to him and tries to get him to come out of his shell. Getting in the way, however, is loudmouth cook Jerry (Aaron Paul), a real jerk who bullies and teases Jorge to the point of cruelty. At the same time, Jerry makes flirtatious moves on Amy, and Jorge, who is slowly developing a crush on her, is flummoxed even further. His attempts to give her small gifts he's picked up at the local thrift store are both pathetic and touching.
What gives the movie its depth are the peeks it offers into Jorge's troubled mind. Unable to relate to humans, he seems to identify with the blank faces in the poster above his sink that demonstrates how to save a choking victim. At various points, the poster comes to life in animated form, and we see Jorge's fantasy world, a peaceful place with trees, rabbits, and memories of his youth. Unfortunately, Jorge's tiny apartment has an unwelcome visitor: an imaginary doppelganger who urges Jorge to take control of life by any means necessary, including violent means, and we're led to wonder if the poor guy is destined to snap and shoot up the diner or jump off a bridge.
Gomez has almost no dialogue to work with, but the handheld digicam is literally in his face, and his big expressive eyes serve as a great window into Jorge's increasingly troubled soul. It's an unusual and memorable piece of screen acting. Yuan, too, is fun to watch, keeping Amy perky and upbeat no matter how dreary her day-to-day life appears. Her attempt to pull together a Thanksgiving dinner for the skeleton crew at the diner is sweet, as is the tiny smile it elicits from Jorge. Still, such moments are fleeting, and we're left wondering until the very last minute whether Jorge's dangerous fantasies may come to fruition. It gives this otherwise small-scale film a big overlay of suspense.
Next time try chewing.