“You know what it’s like to be a mom,” Dai Mah (Jade Wu) says to his sister TSE (Shuya Chang) near the climax of “Snakehead” by screenwriter/director Evan Jackson Leong.””You see your mistakes in your children. You wish you could have done better.”Tse does not yet know what shortcomings she sees in her own daughter; having left her years earlier, she now follows the unconscious teenager in the Chinatown of New York. There is hope for reconciliation — in fact, Tse was brought from China by a “snakehead” or a smuggler who brings migrants into the country illegally. Now in the service of Dai Mah, to whom she owes a debt for the trip, Tse has to perform various unpleasant tasks. However, despite the opposite of Rambo (Sung Kang), the son of Dai Mah sees too much of himself, Tse has become a favorite and trusted confidant who could one day take over when the time of Dai Mah will be over.
It’s a familiar story with few surprises. What works is how Leong’s scenario refuses to let anyone complain or wallow in victimization. It plays like a meditation on survival under an inhospitable circumstance. No one sees America as the land of the myth of milk and honey that it sells, not even those who managed to make capitalism work for them. When Zareeb (Yacine Djoumbaye), another immigrant in a similar debt situation, asks her what she would think of New York before she gets there, Tse replies, “I didn’t think of it. I just got here.”Although he is not naive, Zareeb has an optimistic feeling about his plans as soon as he is no longer under contract. Unlike Tse, it is sure to give the desired result. Knowing what happens to his character type in movies like this only makes us worry about his chances.
Tse will not give us cause for concern. She shies away from the mere thought that she has little control over her destiny, and is not afraid to let know what she is doing and will do to gain her freedom. Although in the narrative she tells us that her main purpose after smuggling was prostitution, she immediately turns out to be unfit for work by beating a man who mis-words one of the workers in the massage parlor. “This is for the weak,” she growls. “I’m not weak.”This attracts the attention of Dai Mah, to the great annoyance of Rambo.
Viewers can recognize Sung Kang from his work as Han in the series “Fast and Furious”. Here he is involved in a different kind of “family”, although his boss is as categorical on the importance of the family as Vin Diesel. While Tse delves into the inner workings of this delinquent empire in Chinatown, Dai Mah repeatedly refers to it as part of a welded, albeit dysfunctional, unit. Even his nickname,”Sister” TSE sounds like a parent in a clan who is also a “Ma.”The only word we hear more as a family is “weak.”No less than three characters vehemently deny that they are weak, and then prove their views with more or less powered success.
Although it has several action sequences, “Snakehead” isn’t as intent on delivering the kind of thrills expected. Leong is more interested in human nature and what people say to prepare for the often miserable things that disadvantaged people have to do to lead a tolerable existence. He also senses the chemistry between Chang and Wu and uses it for maximum effect. It is not a mother-daughter relationship, although at some point Dai Mah explicitly describes it as such. It’s more of a learning. The elderly woman is struck by the harshness of her intern, how systematically she refuses to withdraw. This seems to be intrinsic to Tse; Dai Mah explains that she had to learn this skill the hard way.
Wu is pretty memorable here, underplaying where others in the stands might have been inclined. His character is essentially the gift of Chinatown. Everyone knows her and respects her. This was obviously not because she was a kind woman (“there is a difference between respect and fear, ” she warns TSE), but her behavior hardly suggests how ruthless she is.
When you have achieved this, you do not have to raise your voice; your call precedes you. Instead of fear, Wu casually displays an insensitive disrespect, a coldness that barely comes to the surface even when it cuts someone’s throat. Dai Mah is a memorable villain, a perfect match with sister TSE’s well-played antihero.
Chang and Wu are so good, they even sell a cliche scene in which one says to the other: “you and I are two sides of the same coin.”I can forgive these heavy intruders, because I had so much fun watching this action of the actors. Their final scene together is a symbolic visual so much on the nose that you might miss the subtle beauty of what each of them is doing. “Snakehead” attracts you with an eerie premise, but the empathy that shines through the cracks of its hard exterior is the real surprise.