Director Evan Jackson Leong is no stranger to the festival circuit. His documentary Linsanity--chronicling the life of trailblazing Asian-American NBA player Jeremy Lin--screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. Leong’s body of documentary work also includes 1040: Christianity in the New Asia.
However, the documentarian has long harbored narrative feature filmmaking aspirations, embodied most prominently in a project that took a dozen years to come to fruition, Snakehead, which this week made its mark at the high-profile Toronto International Film Festival, screened as part of its Discovery program, curated to showcase new storytelling voices from around the world.
The inclusion of Snakehead in the Toronto lineup was described by Leong as “a dream come true.” Written, directed and produced by Leong, Snakehead is a fact-based film based on the true story of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, who ran the snakehead operation which smuggled Chinese people into the U.S.--for a price that had to be paid off over time through prostitution and other illegal acts.
In Leong’s film, Sister Tse (portrayed by Shuya Chang) is brought to New York’s Chinatown by the snakehead syndicate. Tse’s story is one of survival--her motivation isn’t to attain the American dream but rather to endure while trying to find and reconnect with a daughter in the U.S. who was taken from her.
Tse’s survival instincts help her break from prostitution as she gains favor with the matriarch of the snakehead family, Dai Mah (played by Jade Wu), and moves up the ranks of the crime organization.
For Leong, Snakehead is “a story I had to tell. When you make your first (narrative) feature film, it better be the one story you have to tell--because your first film can be both your first and your last. The story was important to me. I heard of it back in 2008 and wrote the first script.”
Leong was drawn to the story in part because of his love for the universality of crime films such as The Godfather, Scarface and Good Fellas. “This is another iteration of that. I’m not saying it’s as good,” he said but it’s akin to and inspired by the spirit of those crime dramas. For Leong, though, the core of the film resides in its Asian female matriarchs. “There are a lot of strong Asian women in my life” and while they don’t have the underground, gangster bent of Snakehead, their instincts to survive and attain carry a universality, observed Leong. These strong women are the foundation of the family unit and this story in a way “pays homage to and explores” that dynamic, he explained.
The performances of Chang and Wu are masterful, reflecting a wide range of humanity from maternal instincts to brutality, vengeance and the love-hate relationship between a gangland head and her protégé--a bond that carries a shared understanding of an immigrant Asian woman’s struggles in America. Also essential for Leong was capturing New York’s gritty Chinatown as “another character in the film,” leaning into and embracing its environments. Towards that end, Leong gravitated to cinematographer Ray Huang whom he had teamed with previously on some music video and other smaller projects. While Leong and Huang were working colleagues before, Snakehead is the project on which they bonded and became creative “brothers,” said the writer-director.
Leong observed that he and DP Huang came together on Snakehead “at the same sort of point in our careers--a director making his first narrative film; a cinematographer who wanted to get to the next level as a feature cinematographer.” Being on that same footing, noted Leong, made he and Huang simpatico, constantly exploring with open minds to do what it took to make the film better.
Also among the many key contributors was the team at production house Valiant Pictures which is involved in features, original entertainment and short-form fare, including commercials and branded content. Leong said that Valiant provided critical support on every level. Snakehead was produced by Arowana Films and 408 Films in association with Valiant Pictures and King Street Pictures. The film is repped by XYZ Films in North America and Odin’s Eye Entertainment internationally. Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Pictures have acquired North American rights to Snakehead.
Leong shared that his biggest takeaway from the experience of making Snakehead was the value of persistence. “There’s no giving up in film,” he affirmed. “I went the distance with it. Making your first narrative feature film is such a hard accomplishment. I have a completely new respect for directors making narrative features, a completely new respect for the craft.” He said that to have Snakehead make the cut at the Toronto Film Festival is both “humbling and exciting.” He added, “No one can take away that you did this. Getting your first feature made is like running an ultra marathon.”
Exec producers of Snakehead are Darryl Wong, Sung Kang, Russell Leong, Sherlyn Leong, Marisa Leong, Jon Chan, David Hou, Helen Shen, Byron Habinsky, Alvin Lau, Greg Yap, Eric Rhee, Matt Cohen and Bruce Ma. Producers are Brian Yang, Dan Mark, Anson Ho and Evan Jackson Leong. Valiant Pictures’ founding partners--director/executive producer Vincent Lin and EP Matthew D’Amato--served as associate producers on Snakehead.