Working on this project for more than a decade, filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong (Linsanity) was finally able to premiere his New York Chinatown crime and human smuggling movie Snakehead at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), starring Shuya Chang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny), Jade Wu (Luke Cage) and Sung Kang (Fast and Furious franchise).
The narrative is inspired by the real-life story of Cheng Chui Ping, “Sister Ping,” who infamously smuggled thousands of people from China to the U.S., charging tens of thousands of dollars per person. She was commonly referred to as the “mother of all snakeheads,” the term used for individuals involved in human smuggling. Sister Ping died in 2014 from cancer while incarcerated.
“I wrote the script to impress a girl and that girl is actually now my wife,” Leong revealed to Yahoo Canada.
“The original story of Sister Ping and the snakehead in New York Chinatown, I was really attracted to because of the strong matriarch character.”
Chang plays the lead character Sister Tse, who comes to New York through a human smuggler and rises in the ranks with the matriarch of a crime family. The actor stressed that there aren’t a lot of complex roles and characters like this in Hollywood, particularly for women.
“Once I read the script, I was just blown away by it,” she said. “This story is not just about a gangster movie or human smuggling, it's really showing who this character is. How did she become that?”
“This whole story is about survival, about getting smuggled in and how to survive in the United States, [becoming] a powerful figure. This has been going on but movies [like this] were usually just made for men. So this is the first movie that's been written that way.”
Wu, who plays the matriarch snakehead, Dai Mah, echoed her co-star’s thoughts on their being very few strong, complex, dynamic roles for women, particularly Asian women and older women, adding that this was “almost impossible” to find in the past.
“I think we're coming to a new trend where there's an acceptability to hear these stories and there's an appetite for them,” she said.
“The wonderful thing about this is it's not culturally or ethnically specific. This scenario can happen in any ethnicity or any culture, and it's happening now… So it brings a universality to the topic and the importance of the message of this film, that everyone is struggling in the consequences of the sacrifices they make to survive.”
For Fast and Furious actor Kang, who is also credited as an executive producer on the film, he has had a long relationship with Leong, so he was excited to be part of his first fictional feature film as a director. Kang also highlighted the uniqueness of the character development in this movie.
“To be able to work with the writer, director and make a character that normally you would see in a one dimensional way, in typical films in Hollywood, but to be able to explore that and explore character on a three dimensional level, it was exciting,” Kang said.
Leong worked in a very collaborative fashion with the actors in Snakehead, who praised him for giving them the “creative freedom” or “creative liberty” to really dive into these dark, intense characters.
“There was a monologue and I said, 'I don't know if I even have to say this, just let me try acting it,' and for an actor to say cut my lines, that's unusual, but I felt that it was more powerful by not saying them, and he gave us the flexibility to do that,” Wu explained.
“He was always reaching out and asking what our opinion was, even in developing the characters, on their backstory, how they dress, where they're from, where they ate," Kang added. "He was open to any suggestions and us being in New York and having people that actually came from that world, in their past, allowed us to humanize these characters and make them multi-dimensional."
It’s likely that the collaboration process, paired with the impactful imagery from actually filming in Chinatown, in New York, adds to the layers of this story, captivating the audience in the “poetic visual story,” as Leong described it, and “exploring the beauty in darkness.”
Snakehead is now available on VOD platforms.