Crime Drama

TIFF Review: ‘Snakehead’ is a Gritty Crime Drama as Seen From an Asian American Perspective

September 17, 2021Ben MK

How far would you go for a better life? For some people, the chance to make their way to a new country in order to avoid the persecution or lack of opportunity they face in their home nation is worth almost any risk imaginable. But for the Snakehead — the Chinese smugglers who facilitate the illegal transport of people desperate enough to put their lives in danger for the possibility of a better life — is there any risk that outweighs the profits to be made from their human cargo?

Tse Mei-Ying (Shuya Chang) never set out to become a member of the organization that brought her across the ocean from China to New York City. But when the FBI raided the boat she was on and she had to choose between death or a life of prostitution, it was clear what she needed to do to survive. Making an impression on the ruthless Snakehead boss, Dai Mah (Jade Wu), Tse is able to ingratiate herself with her captors and soon begins to climb her way up through the ranks of Chinatown's criminal underworld. Known to everyone as Sister Tse, she dutifully works to pays off the debt she owes to the Snakehead while quietly trying to finding the daughter she gave up years earlier. However, when Dai Mah's oldest son, Rambo (Sung Kang), becomes suspicious of Tse's motivations, it forces her to look within herself and examine where her loyalties truly lie.

Written and directed by Evan Jackson Leong and based on true events, the result paints a picture of greed and betrayal, set against the backdrop of a secret society and featuring a predominantly Asian cast. Suffice to say, fans of gritty '70s crime thrillers will find much to admire here. More importantly, Snakehead marks another step in the right direction when it comes to representation and bringing more diverse perspectives to the screen.

Snakehead screens under the Discovery programme at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 29 min.

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