“I never believed in the American Dream — all I knew was how to survive,” Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) announces at the start of “Snakehead,” dispelling any notion that what you’re about to see will be a fairy tale. Still, it’s a minor miracle that she’s made it across the border alive, not only having made an arduous trek across the Atlantic Ocean after striking a deal with smugglers in an effort to find her daughter, but sneaking out after the boat is raided by FBI agents as soon as she hits Rockaway Beach and settling into Chinatown, even though no one is there to welcome her. Writer/director Evan Jackson Leong knew the feeling, not because he was inspired by real-life events, but because bringing “Snakehead” to the screen was just slightly less trying as he, like Sister Tse, found himself running into one obstacle after another over the course of nearly a decade.
However, Leong shows as much ingenuity behind the camera as in front of it when adversity inspires creativity for Sister Tse, who after initially coming to America with the agreement to be a prostitute to pay off her travel costs, shrewdly works her way up the ranks of the crime syndicate to whom she owes her debt, becoming a favorite of its indomitable leader Dai Mah (Jade Wu) and her beloved son Rambo (Sung Kang) for her ability to adapt to whatever’s thrown at her. Leong, himself, had to roll with the punches when he had planned on making his directorial debut in 2012 until Jeremy Lin lit up Madison Square Garden for the New York Knicks and because of a mutual friend, the filmmaker had a front row seat to the sensation that became known as “Linsanity,” which became his first feature instead. Although the doc was well-received, it hadn’t made the financing for his narrative debut any easier, strong enough to secure Lucy Liu to star, but requiring Kickstarter when the action-packed drama may have appeared too ambitious in scope for a first-timer to pull off properly.
Anyone who doubted Leong, however, will no doubt be ashamed of themselves after seeing the final product, which shows off its own impressive moves as the wily Sister Tse navigates the ins and outs of Chinatown, a place admired for everything that’s been built by immigrants from the ground up yet constantly peeking underneath to see the hustle required to simply maintain what’s already standing. As Sister Tse can be seen busing tables in the dim sum banquet hall owned by Dai Mah, washing dishes in the far less glamorous kitchen below and having to deal with the even less savory business going on where the pipes run underneath on occasion, the thriller dynamically brings to the surface an entire ecosystem that few ever think about and is rife with dramatic possibilities. With a shoot that spanned from New York to Palm Beach to Kinmen National Park in Taiwan, “Snakehead” works at a scale well beyond its actual production costs any fears the director may have had about going over budget have been rerouted to placing audiences just a little bit further on the edge of their seats.
After a celebrated festival run that began earlier this year in Santa Barbara and recently ended with a bow at the Toronto Film Festival, the film is now arriving in theaters and on demand and Leong spoke about his unshakeable faith in the project, putting his own spin on the venerable gangster genre and the surprises that were in store for him along the way.
One of the great things about the film is how you’re able to show off so much of Chinatown in New York organically – did you actually build the story around what you knew about the area?
From my documentary background as a filmmaker, I always know settings can be a character, and Chinatown has always been a special place for me in my heart, so visually and structurally, we knew all these things are going to take place in Chinatown and there’s so much depth and stories and soul in that little community through the history. We’re talking not just now, but the last 100 years, and in Chinatown, you can just feel the life, those experiences in these buildings. That was really important, and obviously things change, in terms of where are you going to shoot and how are you going to shoot, but ultimately, a lot of it comes down to like, “Okay, we get this place for free. And if it’s the right look, let’s go there” because that’s what we can do working within our limitations. At the same time, I don’t think we ever made any compromises to that part of the story — part of the benefit of this taking so long is that I was like, “No, I’m not going to set up for that. We need to find something that will match the gravity of this moment.”
The entrance into Rambo’s birthday party has to be one of the best shots this side of the Copacabana long take in “Goodfellas.” What that was like to figure out?
Yeah. I’m a huge fan of Scorsese and “Goodfellas” and “Godfather” and “Scarface” and “The Yakuza,” so that is definitely an homage to that moment and in Hong Kong gangster films, they’re always at banquets. I had to make sure that we had a table flipped in this movie, otherwise it’s not a gangster film. [laughs] That’s what always drew me to filmmaking were those exciting entries into worlds that you never experienced before. And a little bit of background [there], there was three worlds that we were going to explore [within Chinatown] – there’s the Chinatown that me and you can go to and eat some food and see it for what it is as a tourist and someone that doesn’t live there. Then there’s the second world, which is the cooks, the chefs, the kitchens, the massage parlors, the people that live there, the apartments. And then the third world was the underworld, the world that no one really gets to see, and we’re constantly going in between the three worlds, always thinking of the middle one, and that scene was our homage to this underworld perspective of community.
That kind of layering also would seem to apply to the characters, none of whom are entirely good or bad, but survivors of their circumstances. Was it difficult to avoid cliches, particularly with the characters that you’d traditionally identify as villains?
It was important for me to make sure that the characters aren’t one-dimensional. When we talk about Asian gangsters and all that, they are. They exist in lots of other films, but they’re always very one-dimensional. They have one need and one desire, and it’s usually just very simple. It’s almost like a prop. So when I made the film, I’m like, “Well, we have an opportunity not to do that. Let’s really flesh every character out so they’re a little more complex and complicated.” I think a good villain is a villain that you can relate to anyway – that’s the best kind of villain and there’s part of me that still relates to Dai Mah. You understand that and it wasn’t hard, but it was just like, “If these actors are going to give me the time, let’s make sure that we give them something meaty to grasp onto.”
Jade Wu, who plays Dai Mah, actually said that you gave a lot of creative leeway to the cast. Did this come alive in ways that you might not have anticipated?
100%, 100%. Especially as a first-time filmmaker, you think you have this God power and then you quickly realize this is a beautiful collaboration. You have to be the captain, but if your engines aren’t running good and your engineers don’t care, then you’re not going to go anywhere, so driving this ship, I wanted to make sure that everyone came here with the same intentions that I did and giving them that freedom and that opportunity. It was way better than the ideas that I had in my mind. You really have to put your ego aside and I’m a documentary filmmaker first, so I like to let things happen, and we constantly did that to launch this film.
Was there any trial by fire once you got onto the set of your first narrative film?
Every day on indie film set is a trial by fire, and not necessarily stunts, but [there were] things that nobody wants to do. I’m in the water a lot of times, and there was a time where the water was just too cold for an actor and I had to play his role. And there’s just constantly things that you are challenged by if you want to get this done, sometimes the only way to do it is by yourself.
It really was impressive how many water scenes you had in the film when it’s so tricky to work with – what made it so important to hold onto?
I’m a Pisces, I love water. That being said, water was very symbolic in the story in terms of the idea of moving across huge bodies of water. The migrants, the conflict – that’s what you do, t Travel across water to get to this place and the idea of water being powerful — it’s fluid, very beautiful, the Bruce Lee [associations] — it’s very special to me. Using it as a motif in this film really helped me visually tell the story because you’ve got the aquariums, you’ve got the ocean and you’ve got the lobster. All these things are very aquatic. At a certain point, it became a running theme of like, “Well, how do we get a shot of the water in the scene? How do we get some liquid in here?” Because I really want to use it as a level of strength and power.
You actually had a cut of this as early as 2017, which I understand you were sending to festivals, but creatively, did anything crack this open?
I underestimated the amount of care I would need in storytelling for a narrative film. In documentary films, everything you shoot and everything you cut is truth, and in narrative filmmaking, you’re creating truth. It took me a little while to realize that. It took a little time to figure out like, “What is the essence of this film with what we have?” The first year it was a lot of struggle trying to figure it out and then when I brought this other editor on, we really figured it out and then you have to do the sound nice, the color, and all the finishing. And when you have no money, you got to get favors and favors take a little longer when it’s free, so that started the process. At the same time, we weren’t getting a lot of love from the festivals [at first], so I liked the movie, but we weren’t getting the responses we were hoping for in earlier versions of it. [Now] I am just ecstatic. I’m soaking it all up because even talking to you, I’m really excited because I haven’t been able to talk about this film with more than the 50 people that have seen it prior to this moment, so having something and working this hard and actually realizing a dream, I’m old enough to know, these don’t happen all the time.
“Snakehead” opens on October 29th in select theaters, including the Laemmle Glendale in Los Angeles, and available on iTunes and Vudu.