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Multihyphenate Evan Jackson Leong leverages his well-established documentary career for an impressive feature debut with Snakehead, a reality-based narrative film about the personal and collective ramifications of human trafficking. Even as Leong was working on his breakout 2013 pro basketball doc, Linsanity, he was envisioning and planning a leap to a broader canvas that could encompass the criminal breadth of New York’s Chinatown underworld.
Convinced that his perspective as a sixth-generation Chinese American could humanize news reports about Asian gang ascendancy in the United States, Leong took his cues from the criminal career of Cheng Chui Ping, known as “Sister Ping,” a trafficker who operated between Hong Kong and New York in the 1980s and ’90s.
Crafting a relatable protagonist from a notorious template, Leong adroitly captures both the vulnerability and the menace of a woman who finally takes control of her life after decades of victimization, delivering a taut crime drama likely to secure a unique place in contemporary Asian American cinema. After Toronto, Snakehead is slated for an October release from Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions.
Leong begins his crime saga with the arrival in New York of a Chinese ex-convict who has made a deal with “snakehead” traffickers to smuggle her into the U.S. aboard a filthy freighter, along with a cargo of other immigrants. Known as Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), this young woman isn’t looking to pursue the American Dream; rather, she’s hoping to locate her daughter after losing custody while serving her prison sentence. All she knows is that a New York family adopted the child at a young age and that she now lives somewhere in Chinatown. Tse will have to pay off a debt totaling more than $50,000 before she has her freedom back, but she quickly demonstrates that she won’t accept a life of prostitution, badly beating one of the gang’s enforcers.
That assault gets the attention of top boss Dai Mah (Jade Wu), a woman who runs one of the largest human trafficking rings in Chinatown, along with a variety of other criminal activities. Tse ascends quickly in Dai Mah’s organization, where women are typically either exploited or ignored. She serves first as a sympathetic debt collector, then as a reluctant drug runner, before gaining Dai Mah’s confidence and joining her immigrant-smuggling enterprise, which efficiently exploits most major trafficking methods and routes. In her new role, she begins working directly with Dai Mah’s favorite son, Rambo (Sung Kang), a short-tempered abuser who’s constantly starting arguments and fistfights.
While supporting the same gang that trafficked her, Tse searches for her daughter, Rosie (Catherine Jiang), finally spotting her in a Chinatown park and following her around town, but keeping an anonymous distance. Flashbacks to the girl’s childhood in China barely sketch in their relationship, offering only a generic sense of Tse’s motivation to reconnect. At the same time, she tries to avoid Rambo after he begins harassing her. Just as she appears to be edging him out and securing her place as Dai Mah’s heir apparent, a series of critical decisions endangers Tse’s dream of escaping servitude and eventually reuniting with her daughter.
Structuring the storyline around Tse’s central character foregrounds her perspective, emphasized by her frequent voiceover commentary. It’s a technique that’s sometimes too focused on exposition, perhaps to compensate for the screenplay’s fractured plot structure, which repeatedly jumps to flashbacks or cuts deeply into scenes, which can disrupt the film’s pacing and continuity.
Chang fully commits to her innately taciturn though emotionally volatile character, highlighting the clash between Tse’s essential morality and her distinctly amoral struggle to survive the many perils of gang life. As her ruthless crime boss, veteran Wu keeps the pressure on, manipulating and motivating Tse with both threats and promises, a backup plan always ready to neutralize anyone who crosses her.
Taking a break from studio fare to reteam with Leong after their previous collaborations on Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow and Finishing the Game, Kang brings even more troubled brooding and unpredictable violence to his Rambo character than he delivered in his multiple appearances as Han in Lin’s Fast & Furious releases. Indie film enthusiasts may also be pleased to catch Harry Du Young, in another of his myriad supporting roles, as Tse’s client Uncle Gum.
Leong’s observational style enhances the film’s characterizations, adeptly capitalizing on cinematographer Ray Huang’s use of dense, saturated color and dynamic widescreen lensing, which renders even Chinatown’s cramped streets and alleys more expansive and lively.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Distributors: Samuel Goldwyn Films, Roadside Attractions
Production companies: Arowana Films and 408 Films in association with King Street Pictures and Valiant Pictures
Cast: Shuya Chang, Jade Wu, Sung Kang, Catherine Jiang, Richie Eng, Celia Au, Yacine Djoumbaye
Director-screenwriter: Evan Jackson Leong
Producers: Brian Yang, Anson Ho, Dan Mark, Evan Leong
Executive producers: Darryl Wong, Russell Leong, Sherlyn Leong, Marisa Leong, Jon Chan, David Hou, Sung Kang, Helen Shen, Byron Habinsky, Alvin Lau, Greg Yap, Eric Rhee, Matt Cohen, Bruce Ma
Director of photography: Ray Huang
Production designer: Emma Koh
Costume designer: Jessica Yuen
Editors: Chelsea Taylor, Greg Louie, Evan Leong
Music: Roman Molino Dunn
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Toronto Film Festival