Directed and penned by Evan Jackson Leong, Snakehead is a gripping and immersive drama that centers on Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), an immigrant who is determined to survive in New York City. Chang and Jade Wu (who plays crime boss/matriarch Dai Mah) talked to Deepest Dream about why this indie feature was akin to creating magic.
Snakehead from an outsider’s point of view can be labeled as a crime thriller. Thankfully, this movie digs deeper into Sister Tse’s compelling and oftentimes hearbreaking journey.
Shuya Chang: Absolutely. It’s about two female characters that you usually don’t get to see. These roles are usually written for men and not for women. It’s from a completely different perspective. It’s about survival. It’s about how women try to protect their families and their loved ones.
Dai Mah (Jade Wu) brings other families over. It’s not just about smuggling people in. It’s about human behavior. There are so many layers (to Snakehead). We can talk about it for hours, right? I don’t want to give out to much, because I want (people) to see the movie (laughs)!. n
Jade Wu: What makes this film special is it’s showing the world a different side of a community and its underbelly. There is a universal aspect – this underbelly exists in all communities. It doesn’t have to be a Chinese community where the film takes place. And Chinatown is a character in the film.
The underbelly of this place can take place in a Polish community. In a Russian community. In an Indian community and also in a global community. It can take place anywhere in the world. These human flaws, human decisions, solutions – just the whole intensity of how we survive exists universally. That’s what makes this different. It’s just not an action thriller film.
Check out the podcast version of this interview on Find Your Film:
I turned 50 a couple of months ago and over the years I have always wondered when there will be more Asian representation in cinema. Do you see the window slowly opening with movies like Snakehead?
Chang: I feel like it’s an exciting time for us with all the talk. With Asian movies that have been coming out like Shang-Chi and Minari. So that is exciting for all of us as Asian artists.
With Snakehead, you don’t come across scripts like this. We need more of those. Not just Asian stories. We are living in a world that is diverse. We can have a normal love story or action thriller or a comedy and that shouldn’t be specific to Asian culture only. It should just be a story. That’s what I would like it to go at the end of the day.
Of course right now doors are opening up. It’s exciting but it is still not enough. We still need to be seen more. Let’s hope we can push with this movie a little bit further and get more stories out like this.
Wu: Greg you said you just turned 50. You’re a spring chicken compared to me. I’ve been in this business for almost 50 years. Is it opening doors? It’s opening doors gradually but when I started there were no roles. I do see the transformation. I do see the doors opening up.
We are getting our stories told but we need many, many more of them so that we can all keep working. Because we’ve been invisible for so long and now we’re finally getting a semblance of visibility but it is by no means is anywhere near what we should have. I’m excited about the future. I’ve never worked so much in my life. It’s fantastic and I want more work. I’m like Frances McDormand – give me the work. I want the good work and good stories to tell.
Chang: We don’t always want to be stereotyped.
Wu: We don’t want to be caricatures. That’s the beauty of Shuya and I getting these characters. We could have easily spun into caricature and stereotype but we didn’t. We spent a lot of time getting down the nuances of these characters.
Can both of you talk about your respective roles? Both of them are really memorable parts.
Wu: (It’s an) incredible role. How often do you get a role like this? It’s like Charlize Theron doing Monster (laughs). You’re not going to be able to get roles like this. You want to sink your teeth into this character and make every idiosyncracy and nuance perfect so that it shines on screen.
We both had to make these characters real. They had to be real people with human flaws and human solutions.
Shuya, how did you prepare for the role?
Chang: We sat down and we talked about it a lot. Our director was so gracious and open minded. He gave us the freedom to talk about the role and interact with each other. He took suggestions so well. That made it incredibly easy for me to play that role. It makes everything much more realistic.
Wu: Evan gave us complete creative freedom. If it hadn’t been for his creative vision to begin with, we wouldn’t have had that freedom. The luxury of doing indie film is that you become a family unit. It becomes a collaborative project. When you have that creative freedom you can attain so much more nuance and richness of what the film and the story is supposed to be.
We all kind of chimed in and said how do we make this the best we can possilby be. In big studio films, you don’t have that luxury. You’re guided and used as a human prope most of the time (laughs).
Find Your Film co-host Bruce Purkey and I praised the heck out of Snakehead. Check out our review (our discussion starts at 38:42):
How did both of you build that chemistry for the film?
Wu: (laughs) We partied a lot together.
Chang: (laughs) We did. We got along immediately and we had a very good chemistry. When I first heard of Jade, I was so intimidated by her. She is such a great actress and me I’m just a newbie who’s coming in. I watched her do a monologue and thought “Oh my God, it’s amazing.”
Wu: She’s exaggerating. She’s an actress in her own right. C’mon Shuya you’re fantastic. You have an innate ability which is such a gift.
Chang: Well thank you. You learn so much by watching her. We just worked really well together and had that special something towards each other.
Wu: All the producers and Evan saw that chemistry. This film has been blessed from the get go even though it’s been a long journey, it’s been blessed with passion.
Everyone involved with this film has been filled with passion to get this film done. You don’t see even in an indie film you don’t see thousands of people to help you out and make this dream manifest.
Chang: I was also blown away by our community.
Wu: Community was great.
In the middle of the night at 2 in the morning you have a hundred extras who are volunteering to do a banquet scene. That’s impossible.
Can each of you name your favorite movies?
Chang: For me it’s Sissi. It’s the young empress from Austria. I grew up there and it was one of the first movies I watched. I grew up there and I speak German. I was just blown away by Romy Scheider. Another one is The Goonies – who doesn’t like big adventure as a kid? And the third one is In the Mood for Love.
That movie is beautiful.
Are you a huge Wong Kar-Wai fan? I’m assuming you love his films.
Chang: I do. Ray’s (Cinematographer Ray Huang) work in Snakehead reminded me of that style. It’s beautiful and raw and the colors are vibrant. I definitely love that movie.
And for you Jade?
Wu: I have favorite movies and I don’t even to list them. I love The Shawshank Redemption and the way that story evolves. For me it’s storytelling and the poetry behind the story. That is what Snakehead has.
Most of my work is human rights and social justice and this taps into that. It fit right into the mold where the bulk of my work is founded. Right now there is also a film that is being released at the same time of Snakehead called Colin in Black & White which is Ava DuVernay’s movie which is on Netflix.
I just worked with her (on DMZ) and there are so many filmmakers that are making such great films that are making an impact. And that’s what I like to see. I like to see films with an impact and a message.
It was amazing to see how director Evan Jackson Leong fit so much story into third act with a poetic flair. How was everyone able to pull that off?
Wu: What Evan and Ray and the entire crew and cast – We created magic. And that was lead by Evan. We were all blessed. How did we do that? Who knows? What we did was we created magic and that is what it’s all about.
Chang: We had so much material that we had to cut down.
Wu: There has to be a sequel because there is so much beautiful footage. Really raw and great. It can’t be a 12 hour film.
Chang: It could have easily been.
Wu: It could be a trilogy.
Snakehead is now in theaters and is available on Digital and On Demand.
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