Q&A: Director Evan Leong Talks His Gritty Underworld Thriller, ‘Snakehead’

Looking for a dark, moody crime drama with a bite? No, we’re not talking about watching vampire flicks this Halloween weekend—instead, check out a thriller that’s rooted in real life.

Directed by “Linsanity” filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong, “Snakehead” premieres today, Oct. 29. The film follows the story of Sister Tse (Shuya Chang), a human smuggler known as a snakehead, tasked by a powerful Chinatown crime family to transport human cargo into the United States. If you’re well-versed in news from the early aughts, this story might sound familiar—Tse is based on Sister Ping, a renowned snakehead convicted in 2006 who brought over an estimated 3,000 people from China. Sung Kang and Jade Wu also star alongside Chang.

Read our Q&A with Leong here, then you can watch “Snakehead” in theaters and online.

Character: There are so many different complex issues at play here—there’s prostitution, crime families, the justice system, immigration and so much more. How did you develop this story?

Leong: It comes from the roots of where I grew up, watching ’80s, ’90s gangster films: ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Scarface,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ then going into the Hong Kong gangster films and Japanese yakuza movies. I’ve always wanted to do an underworld story, and when I heard about the story of Sister Ping and New York Chinatown in the 2000s, I was like, ‘If I get a chance to make [one movie], that’s the one I want to make. It could be my first and last; I’ll be happy with that.’

What drew me to it was the idea of the Chinese matriarch and what role women play in the underworld. I learned it’s more common than not because a lot of times the women were the ones holding down the foundation of the community and men were going to work everyday. When I knew I wanted to make a gangster film, I was like, ‘If I make it with a man, it’s just going to be this overt amount of testosterone and adrenaline,’ something that’s not as relevant as it was in the ’80s and ’90s. So putting that into the space of women was really exciting to me, because I know a lot of strong Asian women in my life and I never have gotten to see them portrayed in this three-dimensional sort of way.

How did you develop the character of Sister Tse? How close is she to the real Sister Ping?

Obviously, when I heard the story I was really inspired and I was like, ‘I want to make a remake of her life.’ But when I actually moved to Chinatown and started talking to her family members, people that knew her, law enforcement that knew her, I realized that the idea of what she is was practically more important than who she really was. And the more I learned about her, the more I realized that she’s not as good or as bad as she’s portrayed in these headlines and books. Because it’s salacious, it’s exciting: the Chinese underworld run by a woman. And that drew me to it, but the more I learned on the ground in my own primary research, I [didn’t] feel right making a story about someone still alive, still in jail at the time.

Chinatown has changed so much, but that was part of production and the ability to have something like that actually happen makes my story not so fantastic and out of reach. If I made this film and there wasn’t a Sister Ping, people [would be] like, ‘Nah, it feels like a popcorn blockbuster.’ But because it’s rooted in something real that happened that people know about, that makes it a bit more easy to enter.

What was the reaction like from the local community when you told them you were creating a movie based on Sister Ping’s life?

I talked to a lot of people that she brought over, and I knew I couldn’t do justice to who she really was. I didn’t meet her; I didn’t talk to her. And I wanted to make sure I [conveyed] the idea of her, of what she represents.

Law enforcement, they knew I wanted to talk to former FBI and all that, but they knew that she was really important to the public. In their world they deal with her and 10 other worse people, so they knew what she did, they knew what that was part of, but at the same time, it wasn’t as salacious as the media portrayed. That was important to me, to make sure that those people that did know her, they’re like, ‘Okay, this is a justified story based on that role.’

Can you walk us through your process of getting ‘Snakehead’ made?

I started this thing in 2008. I wrote it in 2009, moved to New York and then I had this little break with Jeremy Lin and ‘Linsanity.’ Coming back to [‘Snakehead’], it was like, ‘Let’s raise the money for it,’ and we just couldn’t at the time. Maybe now you could, but 2014, 2012, no one was really giving money to projects like this. Diversity was not an issue unfortunately, so I had to Kickstart and crowdfund. 2017 was basically when we shot it; it probably took me about two years to edit and get it right because it was obviously so big. And we were supposed to premiere last year at this festival—but the pandemic.

So if anything, timing’s been working out perfectly for me. There was a lot of struggle, don’t get me wrong—it was really, really hard for a long time, having a movie that might never see the light of day. And so getting to this point is just an absolute miracle.

As this is your first time directing a narrative feature film, were there ever any moments during production where your cast surprised or impressed you?

Everyone impressed me, on every level. When you’re making an indie film, you don’t have money to pay people that much. No one needs to be there, no one’s paying rent with this kind of money—if anything, you’re probably losing money working 14 hour days. So that means people are there because they want to be, and when they want to be there it’s not a job to them, either. That’s what makes the spirit of indie filmmaking super exciting, because they want to execute on a level of artistry that they don’t normally get to.

I’m blown away by every day that people gave me, every moment. Everything. We had 30 P.A.s, and we had free food from the community, we had free locations, the actors giving me so much more than I would have ever expected and dreamt of. Even down to the sound mixer and the colorist, this is all levels of people [saying], ‘I really want to be a part of this.’ This is why a lot of these people got into film. It’s unfortunate that we don’t always get to do things that we want to, but this is one of those projects that was really exciting. So, there were surprises everywhere.

So, as it’s taken so long for this film to reach the screen, how are you feeling about the premiere? What do you hope audiences can take away from watching the film?

I am feeling super excited. I’ve been with this film for a long time, and being able to show it to people, even just being able to talk about it … Being able to talk to people that have no connection to me, the movie or the subject matter, and being able to hear what they say and what they take from it, has been exciting.

So, I don’t really have expectations. I know why I made the film and I know what I’ve been getting out of it, and I’m happy. I’m happy with what it is and where it’s at, and I’ve always liked this film. At this point, I’m excited to see what they take out of it and what issues they see in it, because ultimately as an artist that’s what you want. You want to create some dialogue about what you do.

Hopefully I can get another job, that’s ultimately what I want to do. So what I hope other people get out of it is, ‘Oh, there’s some ability here. I want to see what he’s going to do next.’ And that’s my journey.

Why was it so important to end the movie on a note of hope, or an uplifting note for Sister Tse?

You think it was uplifting?

I thought it was! Maybe that was just me; now I’m not sure.

That’s why I’m interested to see what people take out of it. But yeah, it’s uplifting. I ultimately had to do right by the character, and she had to go through the arc of understanding that things that we chase, dreams that we have, are selfish sometimes. She had to go through that to understand that, to understand who she is and what she can be.