The most heartbreaking thing about the American Dream is to discover that dreams simply aren’t reality.
Set on the mean streets of New York City’s Chinatown, Snakehead tells the story of Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), a young mother whose daughter is adopted by a Chinese American family during her time in jail. Recently released from incarceration, Tse hires a human trafficker to get her to America, determined to reunite with her daughter. When she arrives, she finds herself in insurmountable debt and refuses to work in local massage parlours in order to help pay it off. Because of her tenacity, she draws the attention of local crime boss Dai Mah (Jade Wu) and quickly rises up in her organization, creating tension between her and Dai Mah’s oldest son, Rambo (Sung Kang).
Directed at Evan Jackson Leong, Snakehead is an effective crime thriller that fully immerses the viewer into its dark, brooding atmosphere and character journeys. Through his use of filtered colours and shadows, Leong gives power to his characters who live in the shadows. Inspired by the real life story of human-smuggler Cheng Chui Ping (aka Sister Ping), this is a world where the light of hope fails to penetrate the soul and the immigrant population. Suddenly, though they had come here to escape the traumas of home, these newcomers are forced to find ways to survive. In short, this is a place of failed dreams where the ones who find their way are the ones who have embraced the nightmare.
As Sister Tse, Shuya Chang does an excellent job providing the necessary focus and intensity that fuels her character. However, while Chang may be the one who carries the film, it’s Wu’s performance as Dai Mah that proves to be the most memorable. With quiet ferocity, Wu is simply incredible as mob boss Dai Mah, imbuing the character with both sympathy and a sinister edge. In every scene she inhabits, Dai Mah simply owns the room and Wu is an absolute joy to watch in the role.
Though the film takes the shape of a gritty crime actioner, Snakehead also critiques the falsehood of the American Dream. As she ventures to the US in search for her daughter, Sister Tse’s vision of life in America is quickly shattered. Billed as a land of opportunity, Snakehead reveals that new life in the United States is unwelcoming to many. However, in a world filled with smuggling, massage parlours and human trafficking, the criminal underworld is shown to open their doors for people who are looking for a way to survive.
And survival is a key theme to the film.
In the world of Snakehead, everyone is simply trying to stay ahead of the curve by any means necessary. This is a world where morality is subjective to your situation and people are willing to step over each other just to make ends meet. (“Your survive my way and I’ll survive mine,” Tse is reminded.) In an effort to make it through the day, we mourn the stories of those who have had to debase themselves just also feel empathetic towards their journeys. These are people who were sold an image of hope and freedom yet find themselves trapped by a new type of slavery and chaos.
However, having said this, it’s this tension of survival that makes the rule of Dai Mah so interesting. In a (literally) cut-throat environment, Dai Mah stands as its most powerful figure. However, instead of simply ruling with fear, she carries the respect of her community. Though she’s willing to do whatever’s necessary to keep her power, she also builds an atmosphere of support, especially with new immigrants and refugees. To her, they are people who need help and support and she creates a ‘safe’ space for them to operate. As such, she seems to live two distinct yet indistinguishable lives. On the one hand, she is a force to be reckoned with. On the other, she’s created a family.
A toxic family based on darkness… but a family nonetheless.
While the concept of family is hardly new to stories about criminal activity, Snakehead links it to survival in a way that feels different than other films. Dai Mah genuinely cares about those in her community, yet so too does she demand respect if you want to remain under her protection. By becoming the only real hope in the neighbourhood, she leaves few options for those who are attempting to start a new life.
In this corner of New York, survival and joining the family are the same thing.
While the film will go unnoticed by many, there’s a lot to like about Snakehead. Led by solid performances from Shuya Chang and Jade Wu, the film has the style and tenacity necessary to keep crime thrillers intriguing. Moreover, by sitting in the shadows of the immigrant experience, Snakehead also exposes the lies of the American Dream and begs the question of what it really takes to survive.
Snakehead is available on VOD and Digital on Friday, October 29th, 2021.