“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 come through in the quiet moments in which Sister Tse 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 the 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.
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