By Theresa Rodewald.
The American Dream is this thing that we sell, that our culture sells. We’ve been selling it for decades now, it’s a propaganda tool, a myth. I wanted to dispel that myth by making sure that our character is not here for the American Dream.”
Snakehead is the first and very impressive feature film by writer/director/producer Evan Jackson Leong. He previously directed the documentary Linsanity (2013) about basketball sensation Jeremy Lin as well as music videos for artists such as Far East Movement and several short documentaries.
Snakehead is based on the true story of an infamous mob boss known as Sister Ping who smuggled three thousand people into the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. The film follows Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) who has arrived in New York City as an illegal immigrant, brought in by a ‘snakehead’, a human smuggler. Forced to pay off the debt she now owes to the Chinese mafia, she is drawn into the underworld of New York City’s Chinatown where she soon rises to influence with the mob boss and matriarch Dai Mah (Jade Wu) – much to the chagrin of Dai Mah’s son Rambo (Sung Kang).
A prescient take on the gangster genre, Leong’s feature is a tale not just of money and power but of survival in a world where people are commodities. Snakehead paints the picture of an underworld in which everyone is trapped, illegal immigrants as well as mobsters: there is no way out or up, only forward, in what turns out to be an endless circle.
Film International sat down with Evan Jackson Leong to talk about gangster films and capitalism, financing his first feature film through a crowdfunding campaign and casting actress Shuya Chang as Sister Tse.
The setting of Snakehead is very specific; you must have done a lot of research in preparation for the screenplay. Did you talk to government agencies as well as people involved in human smuggling?
EJL: Yes. I spent a lot of time on research before I shot the film. When I moved to New York in 2009 to start researching the story, I realized I needed to get ingrained in the community not only because I wanted to have access to places that you can’t necessarily access but also, I wanted to make sure I did justice to the culture of New York City Chinatown. The gamut of people I talked to is from professors to underworld gangsters, to FBI agents. In terms of the underworld I found it particularly interesting that we get so excited about talking to these people, I think that’s because we glorify them in the movies. The more I spent time with them the more I thought, ‘Oh, I’m actually not so impressed by your decisions and your choices.’ At the same time, I got to talk to former FBI agents that in the 1980s and 1990s took down people like Sister Ping. Ultimately, I found the law enforcement side to be quite interesting, just because they have never been portrayed. But in the end, I realised that this was a whole other movie and ultimately, the story I decided to tell is easier for people to digest.
With all the research you did and your experience in documentary filmmaking, why did you choose to make a narrative feature film?
EJL: I’m an artist first and foremost and it’s always been the pie in the sky to become a narrative feature filmmaker. When I first started, my mentor was Justin Lin who directed six Fast and Furious films* as well as Star Trek: Beyond (2016). He started with Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)which is an independent feature, so when I first worked with him, I thought, ‘Oh, you just make an indie film and then all of a sudden, you get to make these big blockbusters.’ I was determined to make Snakehead but it took a little bit longer than I anticipated. I started with documentaries and documentaries paid the bills but I always knew I wanted to cross over into the world of narrative cinema. Making characters come alive, making a setting, the world of Chinatown, come alive, making sure Chinatown is a character in itself – I know how powerful that is in documentary filmmaking. So I was excited to make sure that translated into my narrative filmmaking. I think as an artist, you’re always trying to challenge yourself. First, you do a documentary, then music videos, then you do a short film and at some point a feature film. Ultimately, making a narrative feature was the next challenge for me, I don’t think it gets higher than that.
Essentially, debt is a social construct, the idea that we owe something to someone, yet it has so much weight in our lives, it drives us.”
How important was it for you to make a gangster movie? The way you deal with genre seems to me to be integral to the social critique at the heart of your film. As a genre, the gangster film talks about the immigrant experience but usually in terms of the American Dream, of ‘making it’ in America. In your film, the main character Sister Tse says ‘I didn’t come here for the American Dream, I came here to survive.’ Snakehead has a different perspective on immigration that also seems to reflect a society where it’s no longer about making it but about survival.
EJL: I grew up on 1980s and 1990s gangster films like Scarface (Brian De Palma 1983), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) and even the Hong Kong gangster movies. Those are films that I love and was impacted by as a young artist. So, that’s the story I wanted to tell. And yet, making this movie in 2015, the tropes, the stereotypes, the classical story of the 80s and 90s gangster film didn’t make as much sense anymore. Two things were important to me. One was trying to stay relevant to what immigration is doing. When we shot the film in 2018 people from China weren’t coming to the United States like they were before because now there’s way more opportunity in China than there is here. The other point was the idea of the American Dream. I am privileged enough that I can look at the world and the opportunities that were given to me and realise that the American Dream is this thing that we sell, that our culture sells. We’ve been selling it for decades now, it’s a propaganda tool, a myth. I wanted to dispel that myth by making sure that our character is not here for the American Dream, it’s not as relevant as it used to be. Sister Tse comes to the US for her daughter, she’s not here to make money, she has a deeper purpose.
It is interesting that Sister Tse gets into the gangster underworld for her daughter but also to pay off a debt. That is another way in which your film departs from the classic gangster formula – it is not about accumulating wealth but about paying off her debts. I think that also reflects how capitalism itself has changed.
EJL: Absolutely. I mean we’re all in debt on some level or another and it’s a weird thing that this is who we are as a culture. It’s very American to be in debt but obviously, the Netflix series Squid Game (Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2021) resonates with a lot of people in the world because we’re all on some level committed to some kind of debt. Essentially, debt is a social construct, the idea that we owe something to someone, yet it has so much weight in our lives, it drives us. So yes, it was important to make sure that in that respect, the film was a little different from what we normally see.
I felt that as viewers, we are quite close to Sister Tse. We see the world through her eyes and relate to her, but at the same time, it’s difficult to connect to her emotionally. That felt like a deliberate choice, something achieved through cinematography but also through the way that Shuya Chang plays the character. Would you agree?
EJL: Shuya Chang is amazing. As a first time filmmaker, I’d look to more experienced actors for collaboration. After she auditioned, I felt like Sister Tse had come alive. There is something about her that I don’t want to get too much inside but I want to be able to see and be in that presence. That dark, stoic quality is usually associated with male characters. There is a level of villain in her, something that you cannot touch. It makes me think of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Cohen, 2007). There is this stoicism to him but we don’t necessarily need to know where it came from. And when you place that same quality on a female character it’s different because we are not used to seeing that. For me, it was important to make sure that as a character, Sister Tse is not too open. In the original script, we had her having a lot more lines, a lot more conversations, even with her daughter but tonally that didn’t go in the direction that I wanted. So we had to make these adjustments and it worked out better that way.
You financed Snakehead completely through a Kickstarter campaign, right?
EJL: Almost completely, yes. I got a little money from my parents, a little money from myself, I had a couple of investors, that gave a little money here and there because they believed in me and what I was doing. When I showed the script to producers they would immediately say, ‘This is too much. This is $10 million, $20 million.’ But I was convinced I could do it for cheaper. Part of the skill set that comes with being in filmmaking for the last 20 years is that I know how to do technically everything, so I know how to cut the corners where I can cut the corners and still have a certain level of production value. So, I knew that the only way I would be able to make this movie is if I financed it myself. It was three, four years of trying to raise money with Lucy Lou attached and we couldn’t do it and that is no fault to her but just a sign of the times. With the way this industry works, it is hard to sell a story like this because producers say, ‘Why take a chance on something like this? That money is going to be wasted.’ The reason is that there’s no guaranteed return and I do get that. Film is a collision between art and commerce, one side is going to pull the other and ultimately, the money side always wins. So, I had to take a chance with this movie.
Would you say that crowdfunding is the future of independent filmmaking?
EJL: I don’t know if it’s the future because I don’t know how sustainable it is. I think it’s great for one-offs and as a first opportunity. The way the internet works you can usually find enough of your audience early. That being said, I don’t see anyone that’s really been able to sustain it, unless you’re a YouTuber or a super famous actor but even they are still going to take studio jobs. And so I’d like to believe that it is the future – it could be – but film is so difficult on so many levels. The fact that I’m talking to you is an absolute miracle. How many films get made today that will never see the light of day? That’s thousands of films every year and each one of those took this three-year journey to get there. I don’t know how sustainable a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign is but for the right people, it can definitely change their lives.
What’s next for you. Do you already have your next project planned or in development?
EJL: Well, a year ago, I didn’t have any plans for my narrative career because I didn’t know what was going to happen with this movie. But now all these ideas are springing back up. I want to stay in the Asian-American space and it is an amazing time to be working on and writing a couple of projects. Telling the story of the underdog is ultimately what I want to keep doing.
*The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), Fast & Furious (2009), Fast Five (2011), Fast & Furious 6 (2013), F9 (2021)
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, December 2021).