While we here in the States tend to think of illegal immigration specific to those coming from our Southern border (especially over the Trump years), there’s a vast underground industry that is dedicated to bringing people searching for a better life into America that expands beyond just those that Fox News tries to scare us nightly with. Known as “snakehead smugglers,” various underground gangs engage in smuggling people into the United States (and other Western countries) from many Asian countries. Using various illegal tools, these smugglers bring people across the border and then have them work to pay off their debts (often through sexual slavery or other criminal activities). Documentary filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong (BLT Genesis, Linsanity, Manivore) feature debut Snakehead tackles the subject in an impressive debut crime drama.
Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) lost her daughter who has since then come to America. Desperate, she works with a smuggling gang to bring her over to America in the hopes that she will be reunited with her child. Unfortunately, she’s $50,000 in debt to gang matriarch Dai Mah (Jade Wu) and will have to work off her debt before she can be free. Initially, Snakehead seems to be about Sister Tse as she will have to endure a life of prostitution as she is forced to work in the world’s oldest profession. If you were afraid that Snakehead was going to be a film about the underbelly of prostitution, rest assured, the film expands into a larger territory about the world of smuggling instead. Sister Tse’s too street smart to endure a life of victimization and exploitation. Literally on day one, she decides that no John will manhandle her in any way. Even after suffering repeated beatings, she stands strong and even tries to fight back against those holding her in captivity. This captures the attention of Dai Mah who decides that perhaps there are other ways that Tse can work off her debt and still be useful.
Dai Mah opts to instead bring Sister Tse into the fold of her criminal organization. Dai Mah only has sons, so the idea of having a pseudo-daughter to train and groom in the family business intrigues her. This doesn’t sit that well with her hot-headed and ironically named son Rambo (Sung Kang of The Fast and Furious franchise fame), isn’t too happy that his mother has brought an outsider into the fold, much less someone that some time ago was on the receiving end of their business. Tse slowly climbs up the ladder as a debt collector, a drug smuggler, and soon enough, she’s one of the main smugglers. Shuya Chang is impressive as she is both cold and full of compassion towards those who were not too long ago in the same place she was, but she needs to pay off her debt. But soon enough, she realizes she’s good at this. Is she still carrying on in these illegal activities to pay off the debt and be with her daughter Rosie (Catherine Jiang)? Or does she really enjoy her newfound role and power?
Snakehead is somewhat formulaic in regards to many crime-drama troupes. It has a strong Goodfellas type of vibe (complete with voiceovers describing various expositional plot points) as it showcases a newbie brought into “the family” who then becomes a formidable player, and causes some discontent and betrayal among the ranks. Surprisingly, the weak link of the film is the character Rambo, who isn’t as well-written as his female counterparts. He just comes across as someone who hates Tse because his mother likes her.
What makes Snakehead stand out though is the performances. Both Shuya Chang and Jade Wu deliver captivating performances as the two leads of the film. It’s also interesting that Snakehead showcases a world where women are in charge of many violent and despicable acts often associated with men, and they carry on expertly in their roles. Chang’s Sister Tse is actually based on real-life snakehead smuggler “Sister Ping,” who ran a large human smuggling operation between Hong Kong and New York City from 1984 until 2000. The real-life Sister Ping’s story did not end as well for her as is does for Tse in Snakehead, but overall, the film has enough intriguing twists and turns plot-wise to keep the viewer engaged throughout the film. This has been a passion project for director Evan Jackson Leong for quite some time, and it shows in his output very well, especially by cinematographer Ray Huang. The film showcases the dark side of immigration without being preachy and even helps humanize those caught in the dark circle very effectively.
Snakehead premieres in select theaters and on VOD Friday, October 29th