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VOD Review: Snakehead

October 29, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The feature narrative debut of documentary filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong, Snakehead is a gritty crime drama set in the underworld of New York City’s Chinatown.

The film opens with title cards explaining that, despite the “walls of entry,” illegal migration is still thriving and Chinese human smugglers known as Snakeheads will provide passage into the country for $50,000.

The story centres around one of these migrants, Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), who makes her way from China to New York through the underground network in hopes of reuniting with the daughter who she was forced to give up for adoption years earlier.

Owing $50,000 in debt, she starts working for Dai Mah (Jade Wu), the matriarch of a powerful crime family who runs the human smuggling operation that brought her into the country. Sister Tse is initially put to work in the massage parlour, but eventually works her way up to assisting the family’s human trafficking operation, as she tries to ingratiate herself to Dai Mah and move up the ranks of the family.

The story itself is somewhat formulaic with its double crossings and loyalty tests, and Leong’s script relies a bit too heavily on voiceover and flashbacks to provide exposition for Sister Tse’s story. The film also feels rushed and underdeveloped in places, coming in at just over ninety minutes. But Snakehead stills serves as a decent crime drama that delivers moments of tension and is elevated by a few key elements.

Cinematographer Ray Huang does a decent job of shooting the film and brings interesting camerawork to some of the scenes, including placing the camera on a food cart at one point, and staging a well done border chase involving a drone that allows for some aerial shots. Chang also does a fine job of carrying the film, bringing a quiet confidence to Sister Tse that emerges throughout, but it’s Wu who leaves the biggest mark with her simmering portrayal of Dai Mah, a sort of “godmother” figure who rules over the family with an iron fist.

Snakehead is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

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