Tigertail is the feature directorial debut of Alan Yang, who until now has been known more for his visually adventurous work on streaming series like Master of None and Forever. Master of None, in particular, often showed a flair for the cinematic, and portrayed nuanced stories about the immigrant experience (Yang co-wrote several of the episodes with Aziz Ansari, including the season one highlight “Parents.”) Tigertail combines Yang’s visual sensitivity and interest in the generational disconnect between immigrant parents and their children. It can be a little withdrawn, but it still hits on some moments of real beauty.
Based loosely on the life of Yang’s father, Tigertail focuses on Pin-Jui (The Farewell’s Tzi Ma), who immigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. as a young man (played in flashbacks by Lee Hong-chi), and now has strained relationships with the rest of his family. As an older man, Pin-Jui is stoic, and reserved, and seems emotionally shut down. As a younger man, he’s fun, idealistic and spontaneous. Yang shows us how the one man eventually becomes the other, as Pin-Jui gives up his first love Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), and marries a relative stranger, Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), to live in America. There, his dreams of prosperity are quickly replaced by a harsh reality of hard work, cramped living quarters, and a lack of community.
Yang’s film is particularly lovely in its flashbacks, with color-drenched visuals and a romantic atmosphere that recall Wong Kar-Wai. Scenes in Taiwanese bars and restaurants are stylish and warm, characterized by vintage fashion and a fantastically curated soundtrack. As the younger Pin-Jui, Lee Hong-chi is charming and bright-eyed. His slow breaking down as he gives up his youthful optimism, bit by bit, is both sympathetic and heartbreaking to watch.
The modern portions of Tigertail are less strong, as Pin-Jui tries to connect with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko), who’s experiencing a marital breakup similar to the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and shares some of her dad’s reserved qualities. While the scenes exploring Pin-Jui’s past feel rich and full, this section is less well-developed. We’re given detailed information on Pin-Jui, but know almost nothing about his family; it’s never revealed, for example, what Angela’s job is, or even her age. We know Pin-Jui also has a son, Bobby, but never see him as an adult. It’s possible Yang consciously avoids these details to try to keep the focus solely on the father. That choice leads to some missed opportunities, but its commitment to perspective is admirable, not to mention fairly uncommon among movies of its kind.
Tigertail is a thoughtful, empathetic movie, even if its short running time doesn’t quite give it the room it needs to tell the story it’s trying to communicate. It’s easy to see a version of Yang’s film expanded from a 90-minute character study into a three-hour multi-generational epic. Perhaps more space would give the movie’s other characters and relationships more growth, and fill in a few of the bigger gaps. Like its main character, Tigertail is restrained almost to a fault, but it still shows plenty of promise for Yang as a filmmaker.
“Tigertail” is now streaming on Netflix.