“Tigertail” offers an immigrant tale of love and regret


Courtesy of Netflix

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Asian TV writer-director Alan Yang’s feature directorial debut “Tigertail” presents a poignant and ultimately rewarding look at the immigrant experience.

The story mainly follows Pin-Jui, played by Tzi Ma, a Taiwanese immigrant living in New York. He has recently returned from the funeral of his mother in his hometown of Huwei (translated as “Tigertail”). The visit triggers a flood of memories he seemingly tries to suppress. He was once young and in love, it turns out, with his childhood friend Yuan, played by Yo Hsing-Fang. They bonded together over Westernized local pop music and Otis Redding, among others.

At the same time, Pin-Jui dreams of living in America, but he is very poor. An opportunity soon presents himself, albeit one that requires a terrible price. He has to marry his employer’s demure daughter Zhenzhen, played by Kunjue Li, if he truly wants to be sufficiently set for life in the United States.

He reluctantly accepts, achieving his dream but leaving Yuan behind. A loveless marriage ensues, which breeds an estranged daughter Angela, played by Christine Ko. She is unable to comprehend why her father is not receptive to her pleas for help, as she tries to navigate through her own journey into relationships and life in general.

Yang, who has previously worked in comedy TV shows such as “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None,” has previously stated that “Tigertail” is based on his own experiences as the child of immigrants, with Pin-Jui providing a fictionalized counterpoint to his father.

“My dad grew up impoverished and was living in one room in the rice fields, and had a single mom who had three boys and worked in a sugar factory,” he said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “And his son is now talking to Vanity Fair about a movie he directed. That’s one generation!”

Yet there’s no trace of the comedic brand that Yang is known for throughout the film.

Instead, he provides the viewer with a sorrowful meditation on steadfastly holding on to tradition, as well as the alienation and regret that follows.

It’s easy to blame our forefathers for creating this particular cycle of familial disillusionment, but Yang refuses to stoop low to that conclusion. He presents ways as to why people like Pin-Jui have to feel this way, giving the film its potently powerful message.

For example, Pin-Jui is taught early in life not to convey emotion as he comes to break his back for his family.

Initially, it is useful in the case of having to live with his grandmother under Chinese rule in their country. However, this survivor’s instinct has the detrimental effect of blinding Pin-Jui to his emotional responsibilities as a father later in life. He becomes so driven by goals and results, that he yells at Angela for blundering through her piano recital as a child. The incident would understandably drive Angela and her father apart later in life. But at the same time, the way Pin-Jui acts in his family becomes painfully clear and understandable.

Yang structures the film with parts that alternate between Pin-Jui’s past glories and present sadness. The former, shot in 16mm film, radiates a sensory experience that reminds the seasoned viewer of the equally gorgeous works of fellow Asian filmmakers Wong Kar Wai and Edward Yang.

On the other hand, the latter feels awkwardly flat in comparison, as heavy-handed exposition about Angela and her father threatens to drag the film’s overall narrative down. It also has the unintended effect of preventing “Tigertail” from achieving its storytelling prowess with the likes of “In the Mood for Love” and “Yi Yi”.

However, it’s a minor nitpick that can be forgiven by Yang’s intimate exploration of the immigrant tale. It holds its own with another similarly themed film “The Farewell,” which explores a new generation of immigrants as they come to terms with their hometown. “Tigertail,” in turn, explores an older generation as they deal with their past.

While Pin-Jui realizes that he’s not young and blissfully naive anymore, he recognizes an opportunity to make peace with that fact. In effect, Yang has crafted a gorgeous film conveying the immigrant tradition in a way that gives hope for our collective identity.

Illustration by Ariel Landry
Illustration by Ariel Landry