“Snakehead” is a little crime thriller flick which did its job better than expected within its genre conventions. As delving into the seedy sides of the Chinatown area of New York City along with its feisty criminal heroine, the movie gradually engages us via its vivid mood and details, and we come to have some understanding and empathy on her even though we often observe her shady struggle for survival from the distance.
At the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes its heroine’s past and current status. Around 8 years ago in Taiwan, she was separated from her young daughter as being arrested and then incarcerated for some crime, and now she is determined to reunite with her daughter by any means necessary, who was sent to US for being adopted at that time. Along with many other illegal immigrants from China, she gets herself shipped to New York City by a local human smuggling organization in the city, and we see how she manages to arrive in the city along with some of those illegal immigrants despite an unexpected raid on their ship.
Because she has to pay off the debt which is more than fifty thousand dollar, she is soon sent to some stuffy brothel somewhere in the Chinatown area of the city along with several other women. Although she is ready to do anything as reflected by a brief moment with her first customer, she attacks some other customer when this dude attempts to hit one of her fellow workers for a minor trouble, and that consequently leads to a very serious situation for her.
However, when she subsequently rises to the challenge as showing that she is definitely not the one to mess with, she draws the attention of Dai Mah (Jade Wu), the owner of the brothel who is also the boss of that local human smuggling organization. Although their first encounter is not exactly pleasant, Dai Mah instantly senses how tough and strong-willed her new girl is, and then she gives an offer our heroine cannot easily refuse. If she shows more of her worth, she will be sort of promoted, and she does soon gets transferred from one job to another as she works harder as demanded.
Eventually, Dai Mah trusts her enough to assign her to collecting debts in their area, and our heroine, who is now often called Sister Tse by others around her, gradually becomes her boss’ trustworthy right-hand figure as getting to learn more and more from her criminal mentor who has built and maintained her small criminal empire for many years. Even though she is well aware that she and her criminal organization have passed their peak period with dwindling profit, Dai Mah still has lots of influence and connections in her area, and she is determined to go on as much as possible.
Meanwhile, we get to know Mai Dah’s main human weakness, and that is Rambo (Sung Kang). He is one of his sons, and she is willing to tolerate his hot temper and stupidity because, as revealed later in the story, she has felt like owing a lot to this troublemaker son. In case of Rambo, he is certainly grateful to his mother’s care and protection, but, as your average macho dude, he tries to earn money for himself as a man, and he is not so pleased to see our heroine getting earning more trust from his mother.
After gaining more trust from her boss after one unexpected incident, our heroine is tasked with handling one big human smuggling operation as a new “snakehead”, and the movie accordingly widens its view a bit as she hops among several different locations around the world. At one point, we get a tense scene where she and her accomplices must outwit their opponents for transporting those illegal immigrants across the border, and director/writer/co-producer/co-editor Evan Jackson Leong, who incidentally made a feature film debut here in this film, skillfully dials the level of tension up and down as required.
As often chilling us with how harsh and ruthless the small criminal world surrounding its heroine can be, the movie also has some softer moments for conveying to us the human sides of her and a few other characters in the story. While the subplot involved with her lost daughter is rather perfunctory and contrived in my humble opinion, its eventual resolution is a bit poignant, and so is our heroine’s accident friendship with an African immigrant dude who wants to have his own dumpling shop someday.
Most of all, the movie depends a lot on the dynamic relationship development between its heroine and her boss along the story, and its two main cast members are convincing as their respective characters are heading to the inevitable point we have been expecting from the start. While Shuya Chang brings considerable gritty hardcore resilience to her character, Jade Wu effortlessly exudes her character’s long history as well as her cold-blooded sides, and they are supported well by several other main cast members including Catherine Jiang, Richie Eng, Yacine Djoumbaye, and Sung Kang, who often chews his scenes as demanded by his showy supporting role.
Overall, “Snakehead” will not surprise you much if you are a seasoned moviegoer familiar with its genre, but it distinguishes itself fairly well via mood, details, and two strong performances at its center. Yes, I instantly knew what and how it is about during its first few minutes, but I did not mind going along with that, and I am satisfied enough for now.