Growing up in North America any Asian female character portrayed in the movies was usually of two stereotypes, either a  nerdy, quiet smart girl with glasses or a prostitute. For years, Hollywood had put the Asian female in her place — subservient, petite and “exotic”. When I had the opportunity to speak with Jade Wu, a highly accomplished Chinese-American actress, I was eager to ask her about her years in the industry and why, only now, are we seeing Asian actresses not just in superhero films but also in dynamic and complex leading roles in action thrillers that are often reserved for men. Case in point, her latest role as Dai Mah in Evan Jackson Leong’s SNAKEHEAD gives off a “don’t even think about messing with me” vibes.

Inspired by a true story, the film is about a Chinese illegal immigrant, Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) who gets caught up in an international human trafficking crime ring based in New York. Dai Mah is the elder and leader of the family-run underground operation. Snakehead, is a common reference to someone who is responsible for the smuggling where survival is part of the mission. The sea creature itself is known as a predator. It not only is a fish in the water but it is known to breathe air and some species can live on land for up to four days surviving on whatever it finds.

The character of Dai Mah (Cantonese for big mother) in this film is both feared and respected within the streets of New York’s Chinatown. Behind her sweet Po-Po (grandmother) face is a woman who controls an elaborate scheme to smuggle people in from China. But when the illegal immigrants arrive to the perceived land of opportunity, they must first pay off their astronomical debt. It was eye-opening to learn that in reality each person is willing to be accountable for $50K for the chance to risk everything for a better life. Paying it back takes years often with prostitution, drugs, and other gang related activities. But what is clear is for someone like Sister Tse, the desire to be in America was a matter of survival, “I never believed in the American dream. I came to survive and for family.” Her rebellious streak catches Dai Mah’s attention and soon Sister Tse is taken under her wings. But her dream wasn’t about making money. It was finding her daughter for whom she was separated from and  presumably adopted by  an American family.

Jade Wu (Dai Mah) and Shuya Chang (Sister Tse) in Snakehead

What drew me into this film initially was the two dominant and strong characters being female Asian shown in a very different light. “That’s been my career raison d’être,” said Wu. “I wanted to lower the stereotype or even eradicate it if I can. That’s what drew me to this film. How often do you see Asian women in films depicted like this? It could have easily spun into stereotypes and into the whole dark side of prostitution and the brutality of it all but it didn’t because it was a film about humanism. A film about two strong women and one that is an older Asian woman. How often do I get to play a lead in a film? It’s quite rare. When you find a role like Dai Mah you’re not going to pass that up. I knew I could really sink my teeth into that. I really enjoyed creating that character.”

We spoke about the stereotypes that Asian women were often casted in and Wu mentioned, “it was a depiction, if you think about it, a really small minority of what Asian women represented but that’s how the mass majority saw us.”

But times are changing and her acting career continues to bring more opportunities. Wu has been in the business for 50 years and always wanted to raise the bar for Asian actors and to breakthrough assumptions. She recalls auditions where she was asked to read lines with an accent (she doesn’t have a Chinese accent). She even recalls at one point when a casting director asked if she could read English. Her response was “yes, I can. Can you?” and she walked out. Another time she was asked to audition with an accent and she did so but in a Southern accent. She got the part. Today, Wu tells us she’s working more than ever before. “I’ve been pretty blessed in my career. When I started 50 years ago I couldn’t get any work. Now I’m constantly working because there are so few people in my category and I want more work like this.”

This film is so different because it does diverge into a different direction that is anti-stereotypical with two strong women as leads. This is not a story that’s really been told and the inspiration allowed for more creative freedom, Wu tells us. Snakehead was inspired by the true story of Cheng-Chu Ping, who ran one of the largest snakehead operations for nearly 20 years and was arrested in the 1980s. “She was the most powerful woman in the community and most wealthy but you would never have known it,” said Wu. “I think that was the challenge of creating this role.”

Wu did a lot of research reading not just about snakeheads but she mentioned also on the concept of war. “I think immigrants who come over illegally who are smuggled are dealing with a different kind of war. It’s a personal war. A war with another world and environment where you have to assimilate in order to survive. You have to protect your family against all odds so I wanted to get a background on war itself which is a topic that I use in my own documentary filmmaking and writing. There are so many elements of war and the stories are universal,” said Wu.

There were two very symbolic references in this film. Several times there were either mentions or visuals of water and the other was reoccurring visuals of fish. I knew for the Chinese, fish represented prosperity. “Actually, yes, fish is something that the filmmaker Evan has a passion for. His production company is called Arowana.”

“When drinking water, remember the source.” ~ Sister Tse

As for the water references? Wu tells us about the famous Bruce Lee quote, be like water. “It’s an adage for survival and basically that’s what this film is about.”

The film also give another perspective about human trafficking. “Right, it’s not really about human smuggling it’s about how you survive the decisions that you make and the consequences. Sometimes it goes to the extreme which are inexplicable and that’s why I think this film works. But also, this could take place in any ethnic community. It didn’t have to be Chinatown. It could have be in the Polish, Romanian, Russian, or even South American communities. It’s not just Chinatown but Chinatown is really a character on its own.”

SNAKEHEAD is being released by Vortex Media on digital/VOD across Canada on October 29th.

Here’s the official trailer…