Asian-American director Evan Jackson Leong struggled for more than a decade to secure his first narrative feature Snake head shot and screened this week at the Toronto Film Festival.
But Leong, who grew up in San Francisco and graduated from UCLA, isn’t surprised. Even with Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi having been box office behemoths, he knows it’s hard to find a place for himself as an Asian-American filmmaker in a results-obsessed Hollywood.
“I know this. I’m the underdog. It’s my journey. I know I’m up against a lot. To be successful I have to be twice as good. That’s the nature of growing in this industry as a filmmaker, ”said Leong Hollywood journalist before a Bell Lightbox screening on Tuesday night.
Leong, best known for the Sundance documentary Insanity, on the rise of NBA basketball star Jeremy Lin, wrote and shot a modern-day gangster photo that portrays Sister Tse, a young woman played by Taiwanese star Shuya Chang, who ruthlessly climbs the ranks gang smuggling her along with other illegal immigrants from China into New York’s Chinatown.
Along the way, Sister Tse, barely surviving under Dai Mah, a cruel gang leader played by Jade Wu, becomes a self-taught human trafficker, or what in Chinatown is called a head of serpent, to rise above misery and vice. around her. But success is not the only reason Sister Tse came to America, as she must come to terms with her own survival and that of her family.
Leong’s thriller juxtaposes the criminal world of Chinatown and the American Dream as Sister Tse, faced with a choice of survival between them or me, puts her own interests ahead of those of the gang and Dai Mah. “It’s the outlaw who comes to town and then leaves town after destroying the system represented by Dai Mah. It’s a very American gangster story, ”said Leong.
The Snake head The writer and director plays with the moral ambiguity of Sister Tse and Dai Mah, whose character is inspired by the real Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping. She ran a notorious smuggling ring in New York’s Chinatown before her arrest and ultimate jail in 2005 for federal conspiracy.
Sister Ping, who died in prison in 2014, has never been more sinister than the myth created by the New York tabloids, Leong argued. “When I spoke to people who knew her, who were smuggled by her, she was just another cog in the international smuggling wheel. It’s never been as good or as bad as the headlines, ”he said.
Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions have already secured the North American rights to Leong’s crime thriller, ahead of a VOD release on October 29, just after TIFF. And the Snake head The director eagerly awaits more Asian American stories to be told by filmmakers like him.
“What does a white writer from Silver Lake know about the Chinese community?” So it’s up to people like me who grew up there, who understand our community and can tell the big stories, or at least a window of opening, ”Leong explained. And he sees progress made by his peers in Hollywood as Asian American writers, directors and producers rise to positions of power.
“But they still have the result to achieve,” warns Leong. And although it took a decade to get Snake head created and published, Leong remains motivated by a passion to tell more stories. “It’s the theme of my life. It is a constant challenge. At this point, I don’t know anything else and it’s too late to change. You have to love this more than success. You have to love to tell stories. You have to love the job, ”he said.
The Toronto Film Festival continues until September 18.
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