Directed By Evan Jackson Leong
Starring Shuya Chang, Jade Wu, Sung Kang, Devon Diep
“Guilt. It eats your heart out from the inside.”
Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) has made a modern era deal with the devil. She has agreed to prostitute herself in exchange for being smuggled into America. Tse owes the traffickers $57,000 and it will take her years to pay it off. It is a no-win predicament. As she explains in an opening narration, “… we all have our reasons.”
Writer/director Evan Jackson Leong’s feature film debut, “Snakehead” is a brutal tale of a tough woman in a tougher situation. Perseverance and drive are what helps Sister Tse survive and turn herself from victim to a woman carrying her own power.
Snakeheads are Chinese human smugglers who do not care about the health nor safety of those they traffic. Their only concern is the profit they will make from these desperate people.
As Tse immerses herself into this dangerous world, she reveals her goal… to find the daughter that was taken away from her eight years ago. As she says, “When drinking water, remember the source.” Tse keeps her eyes on her goal.
A wonderful Jade Wu is Dai Mah, the matriarch of the family that operates the smuggling ring, among other enterprises in the Chinatown of New York City.
Dai Mah has been around and seen it all. She has made her mistakes in life and has long put them behind her. The woman runs her operations with a stern demeanor and a steel look that earns her the respect she has long fought to achieve.
Mah sees survival instincts in Tse and takes the girl under her wing. This angers her son “Rambo” (a dangerous Sung Kang), who feels threatened. Already a wild man, he begins to push back, making bad decisions that will threaten everything and the safety of everyone. Though Mah knows her son endangers all she has built, honor and motherhood refuse to allow her to banish him. As she explains to Sister Tse about her beginnings in the life of crime, “I was weak; he was strong… You see your faults in your children.”
Leong’s film ultimately becomes the tale of two mothers; two women of inner strength who do what it takes to survive in a violent world, keeping their dignity and hard-earned respect.
There is a real passion in Leong’s filmmaking that is evident in the energy he puts into his directing. It fuels the already urgent story that is based on the real-life exploits of Sister Ping, who ran a human smuggling operation between Hong Kong and New York City from the early 1980s to the year 2000. After being caught and receiving a thirty-five-year prison sentence, Ping would die behind bars in 2015.
Shuya Chang is perfect as Sister Tse. The actress embodies the character’s strength and determination. It is a harsh life for Tse and it is making her a hard woman, but there is love there and a soul searching for forgiveness. Chang brings real heart to her performance and to the film.
Wu matches Chang in every beat. Their scenes together have dramatic power and make an impact on many levels. The two characters are the crux of the film’s drama. Each move the other makes takes their fates to a parallel path. And the power of seeing two Asian actresses as the primary focus of a film made in America is a welcome relief and an impactful statement.
Cinematographer Ray Huang and director Leong worked closely together on the film’s visual style. They use Chinatown to its full advantage without over-romanticizing its look. This is a place of culture, and the two men utilize what is at their fingertips, making great use of Chinatown’s environment. The people, the busy streets, the restaurants, all give the film a natural and almost documentary feel.
Leong’s film pays tribute to strong Asian women. It comes in a time where this country is still trudging through the detritus left behind by the previous administration’s racist scare tactics on immigration and the current violence towards the Asian-American communities. That this film exists in the America of today makes its drama land even harder.
Leong’s skill and passion as a filmmaker is on fire in every moment. In this great work, he shows respect for his culture, his heritage, and most importantly, the strong women who have obviously shaped him throughout his life.
“Snakehead” shows the darker side of today’s America through Sister Tse’s tale of survival. It confronts the complete inhumanity of human trafficking and the racism that imbues how many in the United States regard immigrants.
Leong does not claim to have the answers on how to fix this broken country, but through this excellent film, he asks us to simply acknowledge the victims of such cruelty. Every person has a tale to tell and a reason behind everything they do, right or wrong.
As the film teaches us through its portrayal of two strong women, we are all human and we make our own fates. Even in the dourest of situations, find your strength.
NR, 89 Minutes, 408 Films/Arowana Films/King Street Pictures