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Brilliant individual moments don’t always combine to make a brilliant movie. Snakehead is a case in point. A New York crime drama with Taxi Driver levels of ambition, it’s slickly made and very well acted but just doesn’t cohere as a drama.

It’s a true story, or so it says, about a young Taiwanese woman (Shuya Chang) smuggled into the USA by a snakehead (people smuggler). The journey costs her $57,000, an impossible amount to pay off, but she sets about trying to clear the debt by working her way up the criminal network run by Dai Mah (Jade Wu), Chinatown big wheel and crime queenpin.

Mah has fingers in many pies and Sister Tse (Chang), as she becomes known, is beautiful, resourceful and hard as nails. Tse allies herself uneasily with the older woman, moving from sex work to restaurant skivvy to “debt” collector to becoming a snakehead herself, all while being jealously watched by Mah’s son, Rambo (Sung Kang, of Fast and Furious fame).

Showdowns are always on the cards, with either Mah, Rambo or Rambo’s vinegary and even more jealous girlfriend, Sinh (Devon Diep), and so is a certain amount of redemption. One reason Sister Tse is in America is to find the daughter she lost to adoption the last time she tried to sneak into the US – eight years in jail was the result.

Sung Kang as Rambo
Meet Rambo… not that one

Director Evan Jackson Leong has a background in documentary film-making – this is his first drama feature and it took him ten years to get it to the screen – and against expectation shoots much of his film in a warm and woozy style that’s at odds with the frequently violent subject matter. The soundtrack, too, is at the touchy-feely end of the register, closer to ambient washes than you might expect, though glowering.

These are bold artistic gambles perhaps deployed in an attempt to make a subjective impressionistic drama and put a fresh spin on material that’s not unfamiliar. They don’t pay off, to a large extent because the film’s nervy editing – by three different pairs of hands – never quite finds a coherent rhythm.

The big name here is Sung Kang, obviously, but in spite of having charisma to spare in the F&F films, he seems ill at ease in Snakehead, as if under-rehearsed. This is no bad thing in some ways, because the focus is meant to be on Shuya Chang’s Sister Tse and Jade Wu’s Dai Mah. Both of them deliver the goods, Chang convincing as a woman possessed by a ruthless singlemindedness and Wu staying on the straight and narrow in a role it must be tempting to approach with a bullhorn.

It is a film full of striking moments and standout scenes whose dramatic wallop isn’t felt as the body blows they’re meant to be. This is most obvious in the way that the search for the missing daughter is handled. This, after all, is the main reason that Tse is in America. Bizarrely, confoundingly, this side of Sister Tse’s story no emotional heft whatsoever, lost as it is among so many other side and sub plots when it should be the main event.

A New York story through an immigrant’s eyes. The tale of a mother in search of her child. A woman’s rise through the criminal ranks. A mob family losing its grip. A new snakedhead earning her spurs. There’s simply too much in this movie and to get it all in Leong moves fast. But it’s a case of more haste, less speed. More air needed.

Chang and Wu are worth the journey though and every encounter between the steely Tse and formidable Mah delivers intimations of the film this might have been.

Snakehead – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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