Written and directed by Evan Jackson Leong.
Starring Shuya Chang, Jade Wu, Sung Kang, Perry Yung, Yacine Djoumbaye, and Devon Diep.
A Chinese immigrant gets caught up in an international crime ring of human smuggling while attempting to make a better life for her family.
Documentarian-turned-narrative filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong (Linsanity) has been trying to get his feature debut Snakehead off the ground for more than a decade, touted as a crime film with a difference, amassing an entirely Asian cast and centering its focus on women at the core of a ruthless criminal enterprise.
Despite its cultural specificity and good intentions – it’s certainly easy to root for Leong here – this by-the-numbers crime thriller has to settle for being a moderately interesting jaunt at best, one whose cliche-riddled script is elevated by some moody visuals and one majorly riveting performance.
Inspired by true events, Snakehead follows the tempestuous ascent of Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), a young woman who pays a “snakehead” – a smuggler, that is – to transport her from China to New York City to track down her daughter who she was separated from eight years prior.
Though Tse initially agrees to prostitute herself in order to pay back the massive smuggling fee loan, her clear ambition to do more soon enough catches the attention of her shadowy creditor, Dai Mah (Jade Wu), who operates her criminal enterprise with quiet dignity but also an iron fist. But as Tse becomes an ever-more essential player in Dai Mah’s empire, she faces opposition from the kingpin’s bone-headed son Rambo (Sung Kang).
Snakehead is just the latest in a long line of films about the immigrant experience in the United States that seeks to deconstruct and subvert the notional “American Dream.” For Tse and those like her, the mere act of making American landfall ensures potentially years of effective slavery to whichever snakehead stumped up the cash to bring them over.
As intriguing an in as this provides to Leong’s story, his script quickly segues into a broader, less-specific rise-to-power crime romp, filled with clunky, sub-Goodfellas voiceover narration that indicates not a subtle bone in the body of its storytelling. Less a nuanced look at illegal immigration in the U.S. or the complex power strata in an organised crime outfit, Snakehead is more a junky spectacle that at times seems akin to a well-made exploitation film.
This is at least a fundamentally female-driven story, the emotional core of the piece centered around Tse’s desperate desire to get her daughter back. But because the bulk of the film involves Tse clearing her debt before engaging her child, it feels more like a subplot pushed to the back-burner. The focus is more strictly on Tse’s dynamic with the powerful Dai Mah, all while the men orbiting around them are shown to be idiots, pigs, or both.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that a power struggle eventually emerges, and you’ll get no points for guessing what ends up being at stake for Tse. Yet long before then, the story indulges many hackneyed, obvious turns of plot, where characters who are neon-signposted as tragically doomed end up paying the predictable mortal price for their involvement.
Some globe-trotting action in the second half tries to change things up, particularly a risky smuggling job on the American-Mexican border, but an encounter involving drones and some cartoonish border patrol vigilantes may rouse more stifled laughs than awe.
The moment-to-moment dialogue is also of the plainly expository kind, matter-of-factly feeding the audience information in prosaic form, while making clumsy and unconvincing moral equivalences between Tse and her fellow smugglers. That feels practically subtle compared to the film’s depiction of gentrification, though, when a well-dressed white family strolls ahead of Tse in Chinatown and one of them quips with plummy glee, “I forgot the brie.”
What saves Snakehead from foundering entirely is the solid efforts of its cast. Shuya Chang’s quiet, internalised performance projects Tse’s pained longing to be reunited with her child, even if she’s ultimately upstaged by the exemplary work from Jade Wu, who wins easy MVP honours as the savage, suffer-no-fools badass Dai Mah. Wu’s slyly intimidating performance feels in search of a better film, preferably one where her gang boss is actually the protagonist. Sung Kang is meanwhile mildly amusing as the man-child gangster Rambo, though doesn’t get all that much to do.
Considering the film’s low budget, it’s a relatively handsome affair; DP Ray Huang captures the New York City streets in muted, washed-out tones that feel ripped straight out of a film produced in the ’70s. In the pre-film introduction at TIFF, Leong said that he was aided by the efforts of the real local Asian-American community, who opened their doors and allowed him to film in their establishments, and that sense of authentic community is certainly felt throughout the world of the movie.
The most self-announcing technical flaw, however, has to be the distracting presence of obvious post-production dubbing, as in numerous scenes we’ll hear lines of different aural ambiance piped in while the camera coverage is pointed anywhere but the actor-in-question’s mouth. One suspects Leong wanted to clarify a few plot points in his film and couldn’t find a snugger way to do it, but it sticks out all the same.
While sleazily entertaining to a point and offering a compellingly unique point-of-view, Snakehead too often succumbs to crime thriller cliches, undermining Jade Wu’s fierce performance in the process.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.