Snakehead EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Inspired By Scarface, Godfather, And Goodfellas When Creating New Gritty Crime Drama

Snakehead director Evan Jackson Leong reveals which films inspired his new film as well as the real life human smuggler who sparked the idea.

Snakehead is a gritty crime drama that stands out in a popular genre. The film is centered on two women, the Matriarch of the crime underworld in New York City Chinatown, Dai Mah (Jade Wu), and the young upstart who she takes under her wing, Sister Tse (Shuya Chang). Snakehead’s cast also includes Dai Mah’s trouble making son Rambo (Sung Kang) who feels his grip on Dai Mah’s legacy slipping away.

The Illuminerdi had the chance to speak with Snakehead Director Evan Jackson Leong about what inspired him to tell this story which he has been working on for over a decade. Leong revealed that he drew inspiration from a number of sources including films like The Godfather and Scarface, as well as the real-life human smuggler Cheng Chui Ping aka Sister Ping.


“I grew up in the 80s and 90s, so movies like Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface are movies that I love. I love those kinds of movies and even going into Hong Kong gangster films and Yakuza Japanese films. I just love the underworld story. I think that’s something we all love to see in movies and I’ve always wanted to tell one.

And when I heard of the story of Sister Ping and how she smuggled hundreds of thousands of Chinese into New York City Chinatown, I was like, that’s the story I want to tell. What really drew me was the idea of a woman, of a matriarch in Chinatown. I know a lot of strong Chinese and Asian women, and this was really, I wanted to make sure I get to embody that into these characters. And, that’s what really drew me to this story.”



Snakehead director Evan Jackson Leong revealed what about Sister Ping’s story drew him in. And although Snakehead is somewhat inspired by the real-life human smuggler, Leong didn’t want to retell her story.

“It just pulls at your strings. It’s like, I want to know more about this, right? I did, I researched and I interviewed so many different kinds of people. And then I realized, you know what, I don’t necessarily need to make the story specifically about her. I think the fact that she is real, and yet what I want to tell the story of, was the Asian woman and that sort of presence and what that looks like in the underworld.”

While Snakehead stands out among other gritty crime dramas because of the matriarch crime boss, Leong revealed that in the real world this isn’t nearly as rare as film and television would have people believe. Leong explained why he believes women are better suited for this position and how in the Chinese criminal underworld someone like Sister Ping can rise to the stature that she did.  


“Surprisingly a lot of more of these underworld sort of things in the Chinese community is run by women. The men are going to work, and women are running the households and they’re able to spend the time to find other ways to make money, and something like this they are able to do that. But I also feel like, I think the masculine, the man, the alpha male, as we portray in films is not necessarily totally real.

A lot of time it is run by women, because you know I think men always fuck shit up because they’re just driven by greed, they are driven by pride, they are driven by sort of I’m a man. Versus the women can keep these organized crime syndicates going for a long time because they’re not driven by those, they’re driven by building a community and an organization that will last versus the quick buck and the excitement that men get and then want as underworld crime bosses.”

Snakehead focuses on two very strong, powerful women who are in the steeped in the criminal underworld. The influence of classic crime films like Scarface and The Godfather are clear in Evan Jackson Leong’s feature directorial and screenwriting debut. But part of what makes it so intriguing is how it pulls inspiration from real life experiences and people. This makes the main characters, Dai Mah and Sister Tse, truly stand out not only in Snakehead, but as a crime boss and young protégé in the gritty crime genre.

Snakehead will be available in theaters and on digital October 29, 2021. Snakehead is written and directed by Evan Jackson Leong and stars Jade Wu, Shuya Chang, Sung Kang, Richie NG and Devon Diep. Are you going to watch Snakehead? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on our social media.



Caitlin Tyrrell

Caitlin Tyrrell

Features Manager & Producer with The Illuminerdi. Caitlin has a deep love for storytelling of every kind. She is a huge fan of television, animation, and film, but Star Wars, the MCU, and Critical Role hold a special place in her heart.