“Chinatown doesn’t change for anybody,” says Jade Wu’s Dai Mah late in Evan Jackson Leong’s “Snakehead,” the kind of line that sounds like an intentional callback to 1974’s “Chinatown.” That’s not surprising, as so much of Leong’s long-time passion project plays like a tribute to the Old Masters of cinema. “Snakehead” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but considering its all-Asian cast and bent toward chronicling women in power, there’s an air of something truly special to the crime drama, especially in Shuya Chang’s contemplative performance.
An opening title card tells us that for $50,000, Chinese immigrants can be sent to the United States, where they will be then forced into prostitution and other illegal jobs as a means of paying off the debt to the person who brought them, the eponymous “snakehead.” Sister Tse (Chang) is one such woman, working to survive in America and also to find the daughter she lost along the way.
Leong, who directed the 2013 sports documentary “Linsanity” on Asian basketball player Jeremy Lin, had been trying to make this film for years, initially aiming for it to star Lucy Liu. It’s a story close to his heart, and that emotion seems to comes through in the quiet moments in which Sister Tse is expresses her contempt for America. She reiterates that she never sought out the American dream; neither did the other people around her. Everyone she meets is focused 100 percent on survival, and nothing, not any dollar amount, can give them satisfaction they so desperately want.
The film strikes an odd combination of disparate tones, one simmering with rage and another focused on flash and whizz-bang. It’s easy to see where the latter comes from, considering Leong’s background crafting music videos and doing second-unit work for films like “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Then again, it’s also easy to see where 1970s features, like the aforementioned “Chinatown” and “Mean Streets,” influenced Leong.
Shuya Chang is able to balance both tones and is nothing short of spellbinding as Sister Tse. We see her past life in frenzied flashbacks: mostly, how she’s been screwed over a few times by men who saw her as an easy mark. Her arrival to America is meant to leave her bound to prostitution, at least until the matronly Dai Mah takes her under her wing.
We’ve seen this story before: the head of a gang taking on a protégé for revenge, but there’s something different here, probably because of how powerful Chang and Wu are together. Wu’s Dai Mah finds the, dare we say, humor of any given situation, responding to a henchman Tse has just beaten up with a “well, what did you expect”-esque retort. Dai Mah understands the struggles of being a woman in America, let alone an Asian woman, and thus finds something relatable even in Sister Tse’s specific story.
However, that affection only goes so far. For all of Dai Mah’s claims of being family, she’s able to coldly turn on Tse on a dime. Too often, though, Leong goes to extremes with his filmmaking and short-changes his compelling characters. Chang narrates large swathes of the film in a way that feels as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust that the audience won’t understand what’s happening. Just as frequently, the camera focuses on slow-motion water, the dripping a chronic baptism that comes off as pride of technique, more than anything meant to support the narrative.
The plot takes a fair bit to find its footing and it’s a testament, once again, to Chang that she can continually hold our attention. Once she becomes inducted into Dai Mah’s world, the story goes down the familiar road of newbie learning how to become the boss. Sister Tse soon starts butting heads with Dai Mah’s son, the hot-headed Rambo (Sung Kang), and while Kang gives the role his all, the character is too thinly written to be a compelling villain. Much of his motivation is antagonism towards Sister Tse for being Dai Mah’s favorite, as well as a woman, and there’s about it. It’s obvious he’s considered the weakest of Dai Mah’s children, but the character never becomes a proper Big Bad.
That’s generally how most of “Snakehead” feels. Because it’s not saying anything particularly new, when it does fall into a gangster narrative, it has a vibrancy that you’ll want more of. But too often, it veers away from there, toward Tse’s attempt to be near her daughter or trips to make deals with human traffickers that come off as muddy. “Snakehead” juggles too much and, had Leong instead streamlined things toward just Dai Mah and Sister Tse, or even Sister Tse’s attempt to bond with her child, the whole affair would feel more coherent and powerful.
Regardless, there’s far more of “Snakehead” that works than doesn’t, and Leong shows a serious flair for crime dramas. Together with Chang and Wu, the talents of the film are for an electric trio, including stars worth watching and a director very much on the rise.
“Snakehead” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Samuel Goldwyn Films will release it later this year.