Between 1984 and 2000, Sister Ping, real name Cheng Chui Ping, was the name to be aware of in New York’s Chinatown. In those years, she was the operator of an expansive human smuggling ring—a 蛇头, a snakehead. Her life and legacy served as the inspiration for filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong’s Snakehead, a distinct immigrant story that follows Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) navigating the criminal world overseen by Dai Mah (Jade Wu), taking necessary—and at times dark—steps to reunite with her daughter.
This Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions’ release is a complicated story told with plenty of grit in the visuals and performances aptly laced with the scent of burning gunpowder. The film also features Fast and Furious’ Sung Kang, Defending Jacob’s Devon Diep, and Warrior’s Perry Yung.
JumpCut Online’s Nguyen Le got to chat with Leong, Chang and Wu at TIFF 2021 and discussed the grey zone between criminality and survival and the need to give the “Asian gangster” concept much more substance.
On depicting the darker aspects of gaining prosperity and finding community: Do you all find it challenging?
Evan Jackson Leong: For me, you know, I grew up in America, I grew up watching movies, like Scarface, Godfather, Casino, Goodfellas… Those are the kind of movies I was really drawn to as a child. This is kind of another iteration of that “American Gangster” story. I think, what happens is when you deal with, when you’re telling a darker side of your community, you immediately become the one responsible for the community. The reality is that, you know, we need a spectrum of stories. We need and we have Shang-Chi, Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh off the Boat and those like it, and so when we come out with an underworld story, we get hyper-critical about it because it’s the only one. My thing is, we just need more of these stories to be told, so that they can be spread amongst different audiences, right? No film, no story represents all of people in all of the community. Yet, at the same time, if we can provide entertainment and a window into the worlds that people don’t normally see—I think that’s super exciting.
Jade Wu: Every community, every family, every character, every person, there’s a dark side. So, you know, how do you show the dark side and also balance it with the lighter side, the beauty side. The beauty side is usually what people see. That’s what the surface value is. That’s also the surface of Chinatown, which is actually a character in the film. You have what the tourists see in Chinatown, and then you have the underbelly of Chinatown—that’s the dark side. But I don’t think it’s an evil side. I don’t think it’s a negative side. I think, it’s just an inherent side, and just human nature.
Shuya Chang: Yeah, and I don’t necessarily see it as a dark side. I mean, it’s a little piece of history, and it is also current. It’s a very international story. At the end of the day, I mean, human smuggling happens also in Europe, in Latin America, everywhere, right? So it’s just a little piece of history that we give a little bit of an entertainment.
On the subject of sides—Jade and Shuya, performance-wise, how do you go about finding the “Human” in the “Dai Mah” and the “Mother” in the “Sister?”
JW: Well, I am a mother in real life (laughs). My daughter is 47 years old, so she’s also a mother. I already have this inherent, you know, sort of ancestry within the line already. And I think it’s motherhood, parenthood, sisterhood—there’s a female lineage that leads through these characters. And I think with Dai Mah and Sister Tse there’s a family element, there’s a family thread that wouldn’t have existed if Sister Tse did not immigrate here, if she was not trafficked here. The maternal instinct takes over. And there’s an automatic bond.
SC: Yeah, I feel the same about [Sister Tse]. I mean, she definitely identifies herself also with with Dai Mah. She is a mother character, she does respect and admire her at the same time. But she also needs to get to her own daughter. There’s a lot happening inside of her that she cannot give out. But she definitely can relate to Dai Mah very well because they are both very strong characters, very strong women, they’re living in a world of plurality. But not just that! They also have the view of wanting to help others. It’s not all negative at the end of the day. They want to give people hope at the end of the day. There’s also where the respect comes from.
How about you, Evan, in terms of, you know, capturing all that? The humanity beneath the criminality?
EJL: Yeah, I think that most of the time, Asian gangsters or Asian underworld characters in [anything], whether it be Law & Order or a movie, they’re very one-dimensional. They’re just the guy shooting everybody up or the guy that steals something, beats someone up. I think what was most important here was to spend the time and further develop them, right? Because these are just choices, human choices that we all make, we all have the opportunities to make. Which side do we choose? And a lot of times, I think, the world they live in, they just live by a different sort of law. And the law there, all these cultural norms—making sure that you do justice to that specific cultural perspective is what is important in telling their stories.
I like that this is a distinct crime story, if we can call it that, because it’s very women-centric. It centers on womanhood in a universe that is very male-driven, patriarchal. Could you elaborate on your approach to this, in your respective roles?
EJL: The matriarchal roles, I see, are more prevalent in these communities than we think. I think a lot of times the man is the face, the father is the face, but who runs that household? It’s the woman! And as much as that man wants to feel like he’s the powerful one—he’s not. I think, at the end of the day, for me, when we see male gangsters, male underworld characters, they’re driven by money, power, pride, right? Women, for me, I think women should rule the world. I think they’re driven by other words, you know? With Dai Mah, she’s not trying to be famous or be rich, she’s trying to maintain and build! To try to figure out how to continue her legacy and also continue to build a community around her. I think that’s a very different perspective than any gangster—gangsters don’t do that. It’s all about them. And that’s actually even more respective of like, what the “American Gangster” is versus what an “Asian Community-Building Gangster” would be.
JW: And even if you go back to the animal species, the animal kingdom, you will see the female is actually the provider for, you know, a den or a family of chimpanzee… There’s always the matriarchal power behind all kinds of survival. For Dai Mah, that one particular scene where she does kill someone, it comes very naturally to her, but it’s almost comparable to someone providing food and killing an animal to put on the table. Because it’s something you need to eat. What she’s doing is you need to do that to protect your family. It’s a provider, it’s a protector.
SC: Women, we generally are providers in our household. Therefore, women are actually always very strong in that sense. And we are caretakers so we can care what we need to take care of to get to where we need to be. Strong women characters are all like that. I think it plays out a lot in this movie.
And that’s why it’s very tough for me to notice I’m growing up in a culture where a whole lot of literature or sayings make references to women are the inferior kind, are to always serve the men…
JW: Also, inherently, I think for the female you have… I would say practically all females, if you’re born into being a daughter, then there’s a filial piety. And in that filial piety comes with the responsibility. There is a Chinese saying, “Your son will find a wife, but your daughter is forever.” The obligation and the responsibility is forever. So that is a legacy that I think is inherent in the Asian society, and I’m sure in other societies as well, you know, European societies, this family unit. The matriarch is behind the scenes, behind the door, and the patriarch is in front of the door. And that’s what the people see. That’s why the stories have all been patriarchal.
As Evan eloquently put it earlier, you know, like, the man is the face of the house, but then all the functioning, and sometimes even why the house is there, it’s because of the woman. Speaking of legacy, obviously, our characters are based on real people. It’s impossible to say they are totally good, but at the same time you cannot deny that they did do some good. Looking at Sister Tse and Dai Mah, I keep asking myself, “What if sometimes criminality is the next ring on the ladder to climb? And what would I do if I’m to find myself in that situation?”
JW: I don’t know if it’s criminality, I think it’s survival. And it’s also what do you need to do. The decisions of making the sacrifices. And, you know, how do you decide what is the sacrifice, and you have to accept the consequences of that. Are you going to kill? Or are you going to kill because, you know, you’re protecting yourself from getting bitten, or your children, or your family? Is that criminal? Is it any different killing a snake versus killing a person? So what defines criminality, really?
SC: Yeah, it goes down to your own survival. What is important to you? What do you need to do? You know, what choice do you have?
It seems like there’s this eternal struggle between certain social constructs and the primal need to survive, which is why this is a very compelling tale. Thank you for putting on awesome performances. Both Dai Mah and Sister Tse scare me. I say, job well done.
SC: Thank you! We’re not that scary, though! (laughs)
JW: Acting! (laughs)
EJL: They can be! (laughs)
I mean, sometimes a smile really hides a blade. Thank you for bringing a story like this to this stage. And it’s important.
JW: You know what the gift is, Nguyen, is that you’re reacting to it. And I think that’s the whole reason why we all do what we do.
JW: If you walk away from the theater, and you’re moved, whether you’re angry, whether you’re in tears. If you touch something in someone, even if it’s one person leaving that theater, then you will have done your job. I mean, that’s how I look at my job.
Snakehead premiered at TIFF 2021 and will be in theatres, on digital and on demand on October 29, 2021