Referring to Chinese human smuggling gangs, Snakehead marks a ten-year endeavour to bring a crowdfunded thriller to life. A thriller that marks the directorial debut of Chinese-American filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong, the film follows a Chinese migrant known as Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), who illegally buys passage to New York to find her daughter.
Created as a homage to strong Asian women, Snakehead is dominated by two female characters, Tse and Dai Mah (Jade Wu), also known as The Godmother of New York’s Chinatown. Despite her fragile appearance, Tse is anything but weak-willed. She quickly earns the respect of Dai Mah through her loyalty and cold-bloodedness while the matriarch sees the newcomer as a protegé for her empire. Tse quickly becomes a reliable ‘henchwoman’ so Dai Mah assigns increasingly dangerous jobs, starting from food delivery to armed transactions, so Tse can quickly pay off her debts. However, this favouritism eventually antagonises Dai Mah’s son, the brash Rambo (Sung Kang, better known as Han in the Fast and Furious series), especially as he continually tries and seemingly fails to win his mother’s approval. As for Dai Mah, she is all smiles to everybody in Chinatown but her power is as intimidating as her softly spoken manner.
With its significance to the film’s name, Snakehead sporadically refers to the precariousness of human smuggling not just from Asia but also South America. Scenes involving an FBI raid at dawn and a tense foot chase by the Mexican-US border remind audiences that it is an ongoing but inconsistently addressed issue while the odd character expresses their desperation to survive or reunite with their families. Despite this, there is not enough here to draw audiences into the emotional and psychological turmoil related to smuggling, especially when a traumatic incident further reinforces Tse’s indifferent demeanour.
Frustratingly, Snakehead‘s narrative doesn’t provide enough detail about Tse’s daughter Rosie, giving that she is the main reason why she is in New York. Although she strives to reconnect with the youngster, there is an evident lack of emotionality in Tse’s regret so it is hard to believe whether she actually wants to. The stunted resonance with Snakehead also extends to certain characters such as the weak-willed Rambo and his opportunistic girlfriend, who lack development, whereas others such as Tse’s endearing friend Zareeb (Yacine Djoumbaye) feels redundant. In addition, the narrative is a slow burn in places but considering its main character arc, namely Tse, the third act feels clumsy in its rush to tie up loose ends.
In a role originally cast by Lucy Liu, Wu Assassins‘ Shuya Chang shines in a powerful performance that evokes a compelling detachment that hides Tse’s true emotions. Her on-screen chemistry with the equally brilliant Wu easily commands the film, with the women sparring in a compelling tug-of-war for power. Visually, Leong incorporates a gritty aesthetic that highlights the seediness of New York Chinatown amid evocative shots of water. Through his unrefined yet raw eye, he paints the area with a dull brush as he tries to capture its chaos and residents through the market vendors, restaurants and streets, providing a muted visual ode to his Chinese heritage that complements his hard-hitting dialogue.
Overall, Snakehead is a solid directorial debut from Leong, which highlights a rough-and-ready visual style and confident performances from Chuya and Wu.
Director: Evan Jackson Leong
Stars: Shuya Chang, Jade Wu, Sung Kang
Runtime: 99 minutes