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Snakehead Movie Review October 29, 2021

“You know what it’s like to be a mother,” Dai Mah (Jade Wu) tells Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) near the climax of “Snakehead” writer/director Evan Jackson Leong. “You see your faults in your children. You just wish you had done better. Tse didn’t know yet what fault he saw in his own daughter; After giving up years before, he now follows an unconscious teenager around New York City’s Chinatown. There is hope for reconciliation—in fact, that’s the reason why Tse was brought from China by “snakeheads” or smugglers who brought migrants into the country illegally. Now to serve Dai Mah, to whom he owes $57,000 for the trip, Tse must complete it by performing various unpleasant tasks. However, despite Rambo’s (Sung Kang) protests, Dai Mah’s son sees too much of him, Tse has become his favorite and trusted confidant who may one day take over when Dai Mah’s time has passed.

It’s a familiar story with a few plot twists. What works is how Leong’s scenario refuses to allow anyone to be pitied or wallow in victimhood. It plays as a meditation to survive in inhospitable circumstances. No one sees America as the land of mythical milk and honey it sells, not even those who have succeeded in making capitalism work for them. When Zareeb (Yacine Djoumbaye), another immigrant in a similar debt situation, asks what he thought New York was like before he got there, Tse replies, “I don’t think. Unlike Tse, he was confident about the desired outcome. Knowing what happens to his type of character in a film like this only makes us worry about the odds.

Tse won’t give us any reason to worry. He is angry at the thought that he has little control over his destiny, and is not afraid to announce what he will and will not do to gain his freedom. Although he tells us in the narrative that his main goal after the smuggling was prostitution, he soon proved himself unsuitable for the job by beating up a man who abused one of the massage parlor workers. “This is for the weak,” he growled.

Here he is involved with a different kind of “family”, even though the leader is as adamant about the importance of family as Vin Diesel. As Tse dives deeper into the inner workings of Chinatown’s criminal empire, Dai Mah repeatedly refers to him as part of a close-knit, albeit dysfunctional, unit. Even his nickname, “Big Brother” Tse sounds like a relative in a clan that also includes “Ma.” The only word we hear more from family is “weak.” No less than three characters vehemently denied that they were weak, then proved their point with varying degrees of violent success.

Despite having a few action sequences, “Snakehead” doesn’t really care about delivering the kind of empty thrill one would expect. Leong is more interested in human nature and what people tell themselves to prepare for the often depressing things that poor people have to do in order to have a tolerable life. He also sensed the chemistry between Chang and Yu and used it to its maximum effect. This is not a mother-daughter relationship, although Dai Mah at one point explicitly described it as such. This is more of an internship. The older woman was impressed by how tough her trainee was, how she consistently refused to back down. This seems intrinsic to Tse; Dai Mah explained that he had to learn this skill the hard way.

Yu is quite impressive here, underestimating what others might tend to boast about. The character is basically Don Chinatown. Everyone knows and respects him. Obviously, this doesn’t come from her being a good woman (“there’s a difference between respect and fear,” he warns Tse), but her demeanor barely shows how cruel she is. When you’ve reached this point, you don’t need to raise your voice; your reputation precedes you. Instead of being scared, Yu casually displayed a callous indifference, a chill that barely surfaced even when he slit someone’s throat. Dai Mah is an unforgettable villain, the perfect match for the well-played antihero Sister Tse.

Chang and Yu are so good, they even sell the cliché scene where one says to the other “you and I are two sides of the same coin.” I can forgive the gross offense because I really enjoyed watching these actors battle. Their final scene together is a symbolic visual so compelling that you might miss the subtle beauty of what they each do.