The familiar story of a new recruit rising through the ranks of organized crime is given a punchy female Asian twist in “Snakehead.” , this first narrative feature by documentary maker Evan Jackson Leong (“Linsanity”) is highlighted by outstanding performances by Shuya Chang as the fearless newbie and Jade Wu as the matriarch of a family specializing in the nasty business of human smuggling. Though it switches tone abrasively at times, and some story aspects feel a little too formulaic, “Snakehead” burns brightly when focused on the Faustian relationship of its formidable female characters. The future looks promising for Leong’s long-gestating labor of love, which opens in theaters and online on Oct. 29 following its major launch at Toronto.
“Snakehead” opens with a sobering statement about the scale of illegal immigration and how human traffickers known as Snakeheads charge $50,000 for passage to the U.S. The first words we hear are those of Sister Tse (Chang), who has just arrived in New York from Taiwan. In cold, emotionless voice-over Tse says, “I never believed in the American dream. All I knew was how to survive.”
With a face as blank and expressionless as her voice, Tse is herded into a brothel and told to start repaying the $57,000 debt she owes Dai Mah (Jade Wu of “Luke Cage”), boss of the Snakehead that brought her to New York and matriarch of a powerful Chinatown crime family. The question of why Tse would subject herself to such a deal is soon answered. Flashbacks and voice-over show how she landed in jail and lost custody of infant daughter Rosie eight years ago. She has now come to find Rosie (Catherine Jiang), who was subsequently adopted by a New York couple.
The dingy environment and depressing atmosphere in the early sequences deceptively point toward a sex slavery drama. That’s until Tse beats up a customer and almost kills one of the sleazy pimps working for Dai Mah. The film acquires an exciting new energy from the moment Tse is hauled in front of Dai Mah to face the consequences. The dialogue is pungent and the delivery is compelling as the younger woman tells her keeper she wants to get out of the sex trade and is willing to do whatever it takes to pay off her debt faster. Sensing that Tse has the brains, ambition and guts to go further Dai Mah gives her an opportunity. Tse’s classic crime movie apprenticeship finds her moving up the chain from kitchen hand to debt collector and finally to a pivotal and trusted role in the people-smuggling operation.
It’s great to watch two powerful Asian female characters taking center stage in an American crime story with strong roots in real events and characters. “Snakehead” is inspired by the life and crimes of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping. In the 1980s and ’90s Sister Ping ran a human trafficking racket between China, Hong Kong and New York that netted her a reputed $40 million fortune. Wu is superb as the calculating veteran who trades in misery without a shred of remorse and seems to have recognized something of her younger and less hardened self in Tse. Chung is equally impressive as a woman whose maternal and survival instincts permit her to crash through physical and moral barriers that most people could not even approach.
Both women are driven by extreme pragmatism, but with starkly contrasting motives and goals. While Dai Mah can casually cut the throat of a disloyal family associate without blinking, Tse never surrenders all of her humanity. Her friendship with fellow debt-ridden immigrant Zareeb (Yacine Djoumbaye), and the compassion she shows toward the frightened and desperate illegals she encounters allows audiences to keep rooting for Tse even as she breaks laws and bodies begin piling up around her.
The deepening relationship between Dai Mah and her protégé is the film’s rich and riveting emotional core. Less compelling is Tse’s rivalry with Dai Mah’s eldest son, Rambo (Sung Kang), a hothead whose volatility and relationship with jealous girlfriend Shih (Devon Diep) have become a liability. Kang brings plenty of energy to the role, but his character isn’t fleshed out sufficiently to turn Rambo into a memorable villain. The film also lapses a little with flashy visual flourishes and sentimental flashbacks to Tse’s troubled past that don’t always sit comfortably with the raw, unflinching and powerful realism that drives the rest of the movie so well.
But these are minor flaws in a story shot by DP Ray Huang with a wonderfully sweaty and grainy quality reminiscent of New York crime classics such as Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant.” With the plainly dressed Dai Mah directing operations with pen, paper and landline telephone from her featureless office and grungy basement, the film has a timeless and dateless character that emphasizes the ongoing, never-ending cycle of people being stripped of their dignity and traded for profit.
Clearly made with huge passion and commitment, “Snakehead” is very nicely scored by prolific composer Roman Molino Dunn and makes great use of the 1980 disco-funk track “Going to America” (aka “Beautiful Lady”) by Taiwanese diva Cheng Qiong Mei.
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