Friday, October 29, 2021

Snakehead: Inspired by “Sister Ping”

It only makes sense that a former Red Guard leader during the Cultural Revolution could so easily segue into human trafficking. In both roles, human beings were just masses to be exploited. The prosecution of her Chinatown syndicate brought wider media attention to the practice of human smuggling and the term “Snakehead” that described it. Her shrewd underworld domination inspired Evan Jackson Leung’s Snakehead, which opens today in theaters and on-demand.

As the woman who will become known as “Sister Tse” makes clear in her opening narration, she is neither an economic migrant nor a political refugee. She came to America, via Dai Mah’s trafficking network, for very personal reasons. To find her daughter. Unfortunately, she must first pay-off a debt of over $50,000 to Dai Mah. Initially, the Sister Ping-analog figures she can simply be consigned to a brothel, but Sister Tse is not so inclined. Impressed by her toughness and resilience, the Snakehead boss starts giving her low-level tasks in her criminal outfit.

Soon, Sister Tse earns Dai Mah’s trust and confidence, but also the jealousy of her thuggish son Rambo. His scheming girlfriend Sinh also has her claws out for Sister Tse. Plus, through these new associations, she attracts the attention of the FBI. As a result, each new high-priority assignment comes with considerably risk, but it is hard for Sister Tse to pass up chances to slash her debt.

Leong, who helmed the terrific doc
Linsanity, brings a gritty street-level perspective and New York attitude to this years-in-the-making passion project. It is two-thirds crime thriller and one-third family tragedy, but the two parts fit together cohesively. He mostly refrains from lecturing the audience on policy issues, aside from an unflattering portrayal of a minutemen-style border patrol. (You could even argue it discourages illegal immigration.)

The intra-gang intrigue is not unprecedented, but it is still pretty compelling. Nonetheless, what really makes the film work are the performances. It starts with Jade Wu, who is absolutely chilling while also weirdly humanizing Dai Mah. Shuya Chang’s intense Sister Tse drives the film quite impressively with her maternal fierceness and existential angst. Sung Kang (Han in the
Fast & Furious franchise) is a palpably dangerous mess as Rambo, while Devon Diep does breakout work as Sinh, the bad vibe-inducing femme fatale.

Since the real-life Ping fled prosecution in 1994,
Snakehead (which looks very much like the New York of today) is clearly fiction rather than a fictionalized biography. Still, this film probably wouldn’t exist without her. (Ironically, Ping was extradited from Hong Kong in 2003, back when the SAR maintained the rule of law.) Frankly, this is a much grabbier and rewarding film than the thematically similar Revenge of the Green Dragons (which also featured Chang). Like its characters, it is tough on the outside, but it understands human frailty quite acutely. Highly recommended, Snakehead opens today (10/29) in LA at the Laemmle Glendale and releases on VOD.