New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) – It’s often said that there’s nothing more powerful in this world than a mother’s love. We hear news stories of mothers gaining near-superhuman strength to save their child from danger, or fending off an attacker twice their size to prevent them from harming their son or daughter. Snakehead, written and directed by Evan Jackson Leong, examines the lengths one mother will go through for her daughter while showing us a world many know little about.
Gaining critical acclaim earlier this year in the Festival circuit, Snakehead tells the story of Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), a Chinese immigrant who allows herself to be smuggled to New York by a Snakehead, a human trafficker who sneaks those looking for a better life into America in exchange for a large sum of money. Sister Tse’s primary goal is to locate the daughter taken from her and sent to the U.S. for adoption. She’s desperate but realistic; she knows her daughter has lived her entire life raised by an American family, and any chance of rearing her as her own has long passed. All Tse wants is to know her daughter is doing well and to see her with her own eyes. She’s willing to put her life, dignity, and health on the line in order to achieve this.
Tse soon discovers that these are more than just smugglers – this is a family-operated crime syndicate, headed up by the intimidating matriarch Dai Mah (Jade Wu). Tse strategically begins to get close with Dai Mah, gaining her trust and moving up the ranks to larger, more important jobs, which gives her the ability to pay off her debt at a faster pace.
It doesn’t take long for Tse to find her daughter, and she painfully watches her walk to and from church every day, viewing from afar. She’s so close, yet still so far from any kind of contact with the child she so desperately misses, and the emotional toll only pushes her to work harder. She’s put herself through hell to get to America and to find her daughter, but once those two tasks are accomplished, where does that put her?
The answer is complicated and multi-faceted. Sometimes, the things we want most in life come with great sacrifice. The lengths we may have to go through for someone we love might require painful, but necessary moves on our part, some of which may never be known by the one we are fighting for.
The beauty of Snakehead lies with these harsh truths. It launches the viewer into the underground world of human smuggling in unapologetic, eye-opening ways. It allows each scene to breathe just enough for us to truly feel Tse’s plight, to empathize with her as a human being, while also not lingering too long to make us uncomfortable. Shuya Chang‘s portrayal of a mother’s desperation is felt within the first few moments of the film, making the viewer root for her, when in her world, no one else really is.
This is a film that doesn’t waste a single moment. It’s a sobering study in empathy for those we may never think about, not because we don’t care, but because we simply aren’t exposed to them. Snakehead grabs you in the first seconds when you hear the voiceover of Tse speaking about what survival means to her, and doesn’t let you go until the final moments. By the time the credits roll, you’ll feel as though you have a better understanding of what life is truly about, and how painful some sacrifice can be.
The film will screen as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, happening August 6-22.
8 out of 10