by Rachel Willis
In New York’s Chinatown, those who smuggle humans into the country are known as Snakeheads. One woman, smuggled into New York herself and in debt to Dai Mah (Jade Wu), finds herself trafficking humans in writer/director Evan Jackson Leong’s film, Snakehead.
Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) is willing to do anything to survive, even if it means working for Dai Mah and her family of black market criminals. Like any criminal family, Dai Mah’s crew runs a few legitimate operations, but out of the eye of the law, they smuggle men and women into the country.
Writer/director Evan Jackson Leong’s film has an eye on the many pieces of operating a human smuggling operation. It’s dangerous work, but most of those involved are true villains. Dai Mah’s son, Rambo (Sung Kang), has no regard for the people he brings into the country. They’re cargo. His legitimate business is an aquarium, and he treats the fish he sells better than the people who are forced to rely on him for safe passage into America.
Sister Tse watches most of this with an observant eye. She’s tough, but she hasn’t lost her empathy for those in situations similar to hers. Though Sister Tse is higher up in the slave chain under Dai Mah, she is still a slave.
Chang crackles with unspoken rage as she watches the operations around her. She sells the role as a fierce woman who ingratiates herself into Dai Mah’s inner circle, but never forgets what she truly is. Wu can’t match Chang’s ferocity on screen. Though we watch her commit a violent act, she never sells herself as someone truly dangerous — a necessity for a woman who runs a crime organization. Slightly more convincing as a villain is Sung Kang, but even his character has a soft spot that stretches believability.
There are too many moments that require a hard suspension of disbelief. Though the immigrants’ predicament rings with truth, it’s the overarching operation that never lands as a believable enterprise.
Loosely based on real people and events, Snakehead is the kind of true-crime drama that tells a compelling story. The fictionalized element, though, tends to forget the victims who suffer as they seek a better life. Sister Tse is an attempt to remember, but as the more brutal elements of the film play out, it’s easy to be swept up in the action rather than rooted in the true horror of human trafficking.