Friday, October 29, 2021

Snakehead - Movie Review

The Movie: Snakehead

The Director: Evan Jackson Leong

The Cast: Sung Kang, Celia Au, Devon Diep, Shuya Chang, Perry Yung, Jamie Choi, Jade Wu, Amy Tsang, Sandra Eloani, Eric Elizaga

The Story: A Chinese immigrant get caught up in an international crime ring of human smuggling while attempting to make a better life for her family.

The Review:
Evan Jackson Leong, best known for his 2013 documentary about NBA star Jeremy Lin, has been working on this project for several years and I am very glad to see that it is now available for everyone to watch. A decade ago, when the director first started working on the story, the Hollywood landscape was quite different having not seen the shifts in perspective and opportunity brought about by films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther so having an Asian female lead in a New York crime thriller that involves human trafficking and organized crime would have been quite an ambitious endeavor.

I had an opportunity to watch this movie during the 2021 CAAMFest Film Festival and enjoyed it thoroughly and it was one of my favorite films of the entire festival. The story is a raw, authentic portrayal of New York's underworld and a strong commentary on how anyone can fall victim to human trafficking. The movie is anchored by strong performances from Shuya Chang and Jade Wu as well as the one and only Sung Kang who you will most likely recognize from his appearances in the Fast and Furious franchise.

While Shuya Chang has been acting in films going back to 2010, this should definitely be considered a breakout performance as she tackles some pretty challenging material and handles it all beautifully. Not sure if beautifully is the right word because the story and the character she plays both get pretty heavy but she does an outstanding job with all of it. Another standout performance is delivered by Jade Wu, as Chinatown underworld boss and snakehead Dai Mah, who is kind of a legend on stage and screen and has popped up here in there recently in shows like Luke Cage and  Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens. Her character, and the movie itself, is loosely based on a real woman who was a snakehead in New York's Chinatown although the director created an entirely fictional story for the movie.

Shuya Chang plays Sister Tse, a young woman who gets caught up in a trafficking ring in New York while trying to locate her missing daughter and decides her best course of action is to just take over the whole operation. As she moves up the ranks, we see the infighting and backstabbing that comes with a criminal lifestyle and this is where Chang is at her best. She handles every aspect of her character's journey with a strength that comes across every moment she is on screen. The fact that she even had the opportunity to create this character is an achievement and then she goes and knocks it out of the park.

One of the things I love about the film is just how raw and gritty every moment is and every scene is filled with so much texture and emotion, you really feel like you are there sharing these experiences. From brutal fight scenes to more tender and emotional moments, the director and cast do a fantastic job of bringing all of it to life even if some of the events are not always the most pleasing things to look at, you just can't take your eyes off of any of it. Also, to see a story like this with not one but two women in positions of strength and power is very important to see on screen, especially seeing how they are fully fleshed out human beings with flaws, emotions, bad decisions, hopes, dreams, and all of it. Bring me more of this type of story telling, I'll be here for it all day long.

The Verdict:
Snakehead is an intense crime thriller that tackles the trials of human trafficking through the eyes of a woman as she rises through the ranks of New York's underworld while also just trying to survive. After years in production, director Evan Jackson Leong gives us a movie that features a powerful story with a strong Asian female lead and a breakout performance from Shuya Chang.

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