The story focusses on Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), a Chinese ex-convict who pays human traffickers, known as Snakeheads, to transport her to the United States. There, she hopes to find her baby, a child adopted out to parents in New York City while she was incarcerated.
Her eventual freedom comes at a heavy price. She owes $57,000 to the Snakeheads, a fee she is expected to repay with a life of prostitution. Instead, she proves herself to be a formidable force. When she beats up one of the gang’s enforcers, she gains the attention of Dai Mah (Jade Wu), the cold-blooded head of a large human trafficking ring. She rises through the ranks, collecting debts, running drugs and eventually, under thew tutelage of Dai Mah’s hot tempered son, Rambo (Sung Kang), in the smuggling of Chinese nationals to America. “I never believed in the American dream,” she says, “all I knew was how to survive.”
All the while she searches for her daughter Rosie (Catherine Jiang). “There is saying from where I come from,” she says, “‘When drinking water, remember the source.’ I knew why I was here.” Her single-mindedness earns her respect from the Snakeheads, but there is danger around every corner. “There are rules,” Dai Mah says, “Chinatown doesn’t change for anyone.”
Inspired by the real-life NYC human trafficking syndicate leader Sister Ping, who died in prison in 2014, “Snakehead” is a gritty story with a documentary, you-are-there feel. The all-Asian cast offers up compelling characters, and, as a female led gangster movie, it paves some new road.
Despite some uneven storytelling “Snakehead” succeeds because of the dual performances at its heart. Chang’s steely veneer masks the level of Sister Tse’s vulnerability. The character is the engine that drives the story, and Chang’s stoic performance keeps the movie on track. As crime boss Dai Mah, Jade Wu is regal and ruthless, and when the movie focusses on those two, it works very well.
“Snakehead” cuts deep to tell Sister Tse’s uncompromising story of survival but is tarnished by too many flashbacks and narration. Still, it’s a memorable narrative debut by a promising director.