After making a string of documentaries, including 2014’s engaging basketball film Linsanity, director Evan Jackson Leong makes the leap to dramatic films with his passion project Snakehead. A decade-long labour of love, Snakehead takes its inspiration from the real-life story of Cheng Chui Ping, a woman who ran one of the largest human trafficking rings for nearly 20 years.
Leong’s fictional tale follows Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) as she reaches American waters after agreeing to pay a snakehead—aka gang-led human-smugglers–$57,000 to get her to New York City. Agreeing to go into sex work at a massage parlour to pay off her debt, it becomes evident early on that the spirited Tse is not cut out for that line of work. Despite her cold exterior, she views herself as a survivor who does what it takes to get by. She has a weakness for helping innocent people in need. When she hears a fellow worker being abused by a client, she springs into violent action.
Proving that her spirit is not easily broken, regardless of the punishment that her overseers dole out, Tse soon catches the attention of Dai Mah (Jade Wu). The matriarch of the snakehead organization, Dai Mah is the most powerful and feared woman in Chinatown. Not even her wayward yet ambitious son Rambo (Fast & Furious’ Sung Kang), who is next in line to the criminal throne, dares to cross her. Seeing a glimmer of potential in Tse, Dai Mah gives her a series of odd jobs, ranging from making dumplings in a restaurant she owns to collecting money owed from those in the community, which will go towards reducing Tse’s debt.
It does not take long for Tse to climb the ladder of trust and spark the ire of Rambo in the process. Dai Mah and Rambo believe that, like all immigrants, Tse wants to one day achieve the freedom and success that the American dream promises. Little do they know that money is the furthest thing from Tse’s mind. She came to New York for one thing only, to track down her daughter who was placed in the adoption system after Tse was thrown in jail for eight years.
Taking viewers through the seedy underbelly of New York, where human bodies are valuable currency, Snakehead works best when highlighting the intricacies of the human smuggling trade. Whether focusing on the bleak interior of cargo ships, the one-room safe houses many immigrants are kept in like hostages, the dangers of using freezer trucks for transport, or the rise of vigilante militias cosplaying as boarder guards, there is plenty to chew on here. One gets a greater understanding of both the vast reaching tentacles that criminal entities have in the smuggling world, and the deadly prices immigrants are willing to pay for a chance at a better life.
While Leong’s examination of the human trafficking landscape is captivating, the film falters when it swims in the overly crowded pool of gangster films. Everything thing from Rambo’s hot-headed nature to the side businesses that he and Tse each start under Dai Mah’s nose plays out exactly how one would expect. Outside of one visually striking action sequence in a lobster factory, the tropes the film utilizes at times feel paint-by-numbers.
Although the narrative beats feel too familiar for its own good, there is something intriguing about the master-protégé relationship that Dai Mah and Tse, Wu and Chang give wonderful performances in the film, eventually form. The transactional nature of their union–one can never truly trust anyone in the criminal world–makes their moments of genuine connection crackle onscreen. Leong adds to the complexity of their bond by aptly showing that both women play in the same morally corrupt sandbox, even if Tse does not view it that way.
Unfortunately, this also makes the sloppy latter half of the film tough to digest. Snakehead never fully reconciles the fact that Tse’s actions have devastating consequences not just for people to whom she is closed, but also for those immigrants who are in the same position she once was. Her chosen form of sacrifice and atonement never hits as emotionally hard as it should. Ultimately, this makes for an uneven work that is equally intriguing and frustrating. Snakehead is ripe with budding potential that never fully blooms.