November 1, 2021

GENRE | Trafficking Chinatown – 'Snakehead' x VAFF 2021

"Chinatown doesn't change for anyone."
Shuya Chang Jade Wu Evan Jackson Leong | Snakehead | VAFF 2021
Vancouver Asian Film Festival
Chinatown crime drama Snakehead, written and directed by Evan Jackson Leong, tackles the less than savoury underbelly of Chinese-American life found somewhere in the back alleys of New York City. Set around restaurants and kitchens, Leong tries to dramatize Southeast Asian gang culture organically but relies too heavily on clunky voiceover narration and dialogue for exposition thus limiting the power of his performances.

Starring Asian-American actresses Shuya Chang and Jade Wu as a Chinese immigrant and the matriarchal boss of a human trafficking ring, we follow the former's Sister Tse trying to survive, earn money, and find her estranged daughter while working as a low-level underling to the former's Dai Mah. Fast & Furious favourite Sung Kang co-stars as Rambo, the hotheaded gangster son of Dai Mah, as he and Tse come into conflict when she threatens his power and favour.

What the film lacks is much subtext as characters do and say exactly what they think or is expected without much nuance or sense of greater motivation. Its twisted sense of the American dream seen through drug dealing, prostitution, and smuggling is hardly ever subtle.

Still, there's often a rich flourish to Snakehead's visual filmmaking, but certain elements feel either scattered or underdeveloped. Its cast and artistic direction tease a desire to go beyond the Chinese gangster material yet it never reaches past the typical criminal power struggle. Nonetheless, how it earnestly films all the villainous Asian characters and street-level New York setting feels refreshingly novel throughout.

Snakehead screens at the 2021 Vancouver Asian Film Festival on November 5th and is available to stream on iTunes and through video on demand.

More | Global BC / Indiewire / THR

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