SNAKEHEAD: A RIVETING FILM BASED ON REAL LIFE IN NEW YORK CITY’S CHINATOWN
Written by Deborah Lau-Yu
Images: Courtesy of Brian Yang, Producer
Director Evan Jackson Leong has been working on this project for almost a decade. He has been interviewed before on this topic which is fascinating just for this story alone. (Most of our current generation cannot hold our attention span for more than ten minutes with all the distractions in front of us, let alone work on a project over the span of ten years!) It comes without surprise that his entire crew behind Snakehead is excited to present this masterpiece in 2021, given the issues of racism against Asian Americans that have been in the centre of many discussions and media this past 18 months during the pandemic. The film also happens to align with the spirit and passion of the star of his 2013 production that he is best known for: professional basketball documentary, Linsanity, Representation and Asian-American stories are important — that they are told, told well, and make important connections for our generation.
Snakehead had a successful premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and this week, it finally hits theatres and online. In Canada though, so far the only screening in Toronto happens this Saturday night in the Bloor East neighbourhood. If you’d like to attend, be sure to get your tickets soon before it’s a full house. Our readers in Vancouver have a chance to catch it at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival on November 5th.
Here’s a summary of the cast and crew of this crime thriller:
DIRECTOR & WRITER: Evan Jackson Leong
PRODUCERS: Brian Yang, Dan Mark, Anson Ho, Evan Jackson Leong
CAST: Shuya Chang, Jade Wu, Yacine Djoumbaye, Catherine Jiang, Richie Eng and Sung Kang
SYNOPSIS: Sister Tse comes to New York through a Snakehead, a human smuggler. She gains favor with the matriarch of the family of crime and she rises the ranks quickly. Soon Tse must reconcile her success with her real reason for coming to America.
RUN TIME: 89 Minutes
YOUTUBE TRAILER: https://youtu.be/JILrh-Ct7ac
Cheng Chui Ping, known as “Sister Ping,” was a trafficker and criminal who operated between Hong Kong and New York in the 1980s and ’90s. Leong’s storytelling humanizes the often reported and never understood underground world of Chinatown’s gangs and tribulations. The movie captures the menacing strength and also vulnerabilities behind a notorious woman in the Chinatown community, and a glimpse into recent history that is rare for minority groups in North America.
The film’s cinematographer, Ray Huang, created moody, saturated colour and density that grasped tightly to Chinatown’s cramped streets and wet alleyways, as well as the ominous tone of the crime saga. From the stills shared with audiences, it draws us into the context immediately, which might trigger us to ask deeper questions about the Chinatowns in our locale here in Canadian cities. Which ones have you visited? What are their histories?
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT THIS STORY?
What’s the significance of this piece in cinema? There are not enough Asian-North American stories captured in film, books, or any media for that matter. American chinatowns are some of the oldest in the world, and represent some of the first places where diaspora communities of Chinese immigrants settled and survived. How it all unfolded and the richness of history has always been there, waiting to be uncovered, waiting to have a voice and to bring layers of meaning to what constitutes our identity as Chinese-Canadians, Chinese-Americans and North Americans. To state that matters of identity are complicated in our generation (the director, Leong, is himself a sixth generation Asian-American!), is the elephant in the room. Every moment of film or page in a book that we read to fill our knowledge gaps of what came before us is a piece — big or small — of understanding where we came from or the context around our grandparents or ancestors during a time even less friendly to our ethnicity.
Shuya Chang carries a big role in the film as Sister Tse, and has been praised by film critics at the Toronto International Film Festival for her incredible and courageous performance she’s one to watch as her career continues. She’s not new to the film scene, having appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) and Chinese Puzzle (2013). In Snakehead, she portrays a Chinese immigrant caught up in an international crime ring of human smuggling, while attempting to make a better life for her family. It’s a position that is relatable to many immigrants and newcomers who are displaced from their homes — perhaps not necessarily tangled in crime, but the sentiment of making a better life for one’s family is in most cases in life, the primary reason for immigration.
Sister Tse brought to New York by a Snakehead, a human smuggler. Although she is indebted to the crime family responsible for her transport, her survival instincts help her gain favor with the matriarch Sister Peng, and she rises quickly in the ranks. Soon Tse must reconcile her success with her real reason for coming to America—to find the child that was taken from her. In the end, Sister Tse must draw on the strength she found in transforming her victimhood into power.
Take a peek at some of the captivating stills, and be sure to watch the film in theatre this Saturday or online. We look forward to hearing your comments and reactions on our social media!
About the writer, Deborah Lau-Yu