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Snakehead': Evan Jackson Leong's homage to the '70s gangster

November 3, 2021
4 min read time

Sister Tse, played by the incredible Shuya Chang in Evan Jackson Leong's Snakehead announces in the opening, "I never believed in the American Dream — all I knew was how to survive." It's this comment that sets the stage for the remainder of the film.

Writer-director Leong's Snakehead journey was seemingly as long and arduous as Sister Tse's.

"I first heard of Sister Ping's quest to smuggle hundreds of thousands of Chinese into Chinatown in 2007 — that's when I started writing the script. I finished the first draft in 2008. It's 2021," he said reflectively.

In Snakehead, Sister Tse navigates a life in Chinatown while she climbs the ranks of the crime syndicate to whom she owes her debt. Snakehead is a wonderful take on the gangster genre and Leong's dedication to his craft along with the consistent tone of the film is masterful.

"I think the tone really became fuller and deeper in the process. You have expectations of what you think it should be when you're writing, and then you shoot it and you edit it and it turns out to be something else," he said.

"From script to screen, it's a constant evolution. I come from documentary filmmaking; I don’t have a problem with opting for what’s best and what's right for the story. As a filmmaker you should be exploring and trying different things. Ultimately, I feel like the edit of Snakehead was a big puzzle  we had to figure out what worked and what didn't. Tonally, it’s strong but when you go back and look at each stage of the process  the written draft and the shooting script had elements that were left out because tonally they just didn’t work. You really have to focus on tone  it can so easily pull your audience out."

The film's script is incredibly solid; effectively paced with developed character arcs, but after nearly a decade of getting this film to screen, Leong says he has hundreds of iterations of the script.

"I first heard about this story when I was 27 or 28. By the time I’m shooting this I’m 35 and I have a very different perspective of the world. When the script carries through so much of your development as an adult, I look at the film and I see remnants of my twenties and thirties, my thoughts and ideals. But no matter how the script changed — you know, with time subplots change, and sub-themes change, and budget can change everything — but even as the script morphed as I grew, the core themes and core story, they stayed the same and I think that's very important to the film's overall story."

He adds, "Unfortunately when you write a film for 10 years you rewrite every scene to make it more exciting. We had so many set-pieces  too many  for an indie film, but they were great on the page. It was really the magic of editing to figure out the pacing to get in and out and around these set-pieces. The pacing probably wasn't there in the script, that definitely took place in the edit."

All of the characters in Snakehead are victims of circumstance; not necessarily villains, but characters born out of decisions and deceit, shaped by difficulties and determination. Nobody in the film is particularly evil  each character is an effect of a difficult journey pursuing life with their own intentions.

"As a first-time filmmaker, you're the captain but you have to sail the ship with a cast who have the same intentions to make the best film possible. I leaned heavily on the cast to bring their characters to life. I might see one way, but I'm from the world of docs, so I learned to let things happen. I knew the cast would take the characters to where they needed to be," Leong said.

And though all of the characters in Snakehead are incredibly fleshed out and well developed, perhaps the most developed is the character of New York's Chinatown itself. Bright, bold, fast, soul, historic, gritty, but perhaps the film's most endearing aspect is its true homage to gangster movies. Leong effectively transports us into his own world, while tipping his hat to the great films of the genre, especially from the '80s and '90s.

"I love those movies; I wanted to create my own, one day. But look, if you made Scarface now, it would not play the same. You have to be relevant to the times. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall into the tropes that are so standard to the genre, but instead pay homage to them  I do the same thing ... but a little different," Leong laughed.

The crime thriller Snakehead is now in theaters and available on Digital and On Demand.

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