Master of None co-creator Alan Yang interrogates his father’s move to America in a thin, but gentle debut.
Tigertail begins in an open field — it’s 1950s Taiwan, in the early days of the Chinese occupation by the Kuomintang regime, and a young Pin-Jui imagines his parents in the rice fields. They’re not there, of course; his father lost his life, and his mother sent him to live with his grandmother to keep him safe amid this new military dictatorship. These kinds of dramatic life changes come with no small amount of sacrifice and heartache, something that writer/director Alan Yang (co-creator of Master of None) explores, albeit with not enough depth, in his directorial debut.
It’s interesting to consider Yang’s pedigree as a comedic writer for Michael Schur joints like The Good Place and Parks & Recreation, considering how bone-deeply earnest Tigertail is. In concept, it’s a deeply personal story derived greatly from Yang’s own life, reinterpreting his father’s journey to America and the struggles therein — a bittersweet tale with stylistic nods to the films of Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. In practice, it reads like an especially earnest, joke-free episode of Master of None, which more effortlessly blended stately, bittersweet tales of ancestry and identity with a winsome sense of humor.
That’s not the worst thing in the world, mind you. Tigertail still essentially works, with a bevy of solid performances and some beautiful cinematography courtesy of Nigel Bluck. Yang tracks his father-analogue Pin-Jui through his young adulthood (Hong-Chi Lee), where his need to support his ailing mother rips him from childhood love Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang) and into a miserable arranged marriage with his boss’ daughter, Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li). The two move to America barely knowing each other, much less any other Taiwanese people in New York City. Both are miserable in their own ways, but let it lie so they can live the American Dream.
Yang intercuts this with scenes of an older Pin-Jui (veteran Asian-American actor Tzi Ma, of The Farewell and Disney’s upcoming Mulan remake) at the tail end of such a practically-minded life: he’s withdrawn, unemotional, and that’s clearly rubbed off on his daughter Angela (Christine Ko), with whom he has a strained relationship. Their dynamic illustrates the kind of inter-generational conflict a lot of immigrant families go through in America: Angela sees her father as withholding, he sees her as ungrateful and frivolous. There’s an iciness there that the scenes of young Pin-Jui’s sacrifice (and Zhenzhen’s own alienation) bring into great relief, which are some of the most effective elements of the film.
And in the past, too, Yang delights in filling in the period details of 1950s and 1960s Taiwan, in both its rural and industrial forms. Lee and Fang have lovely chemistry as Pin-Jui and Yuan at the height of their romantic bliss, thumbing their noses at snooty wait staff or singing along to Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
Of course, this only serves to emphasize how closed off he’s become in the present, the product of decades’ worth of miserable obligation (which Ma plays with his usual dignity and understated grace). While the background details are sympathetic, Yang doesn’t let Pin-Jui’s shortcomings off the hook, either; present-day Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu) is frank and honest about their estranged marriage, and Yang gives her plenty of space to explore her justifiable miseries. While many details of Pin-Jui’s life don’t glom perfectly to Yang’s own father (who was a doctor, unlike Pin-Jui’s more working-class experience), Tigertail feels like Yang openly reckoning with the tensions of being a second-generation immigrant and struggling to understand what their parents went through to give them a better life.
Tigertail feels like Yang openly reckoning with the tensions of being a second-generation immigrant and struggling to understand what their parents went through to give them a better life.
But Tigertail still feels a bit too slight for its own good, a watered-down immigrant tale that eschews more complicated dynamics for a warm, fuzzy accessibility and a too-short 90-minute runtime. One can’t help but wonder what Yang could have done with two, two-and-a-half hours to explicate his father’s life story and the complexities therein. Fans of Chinese and Taiwanese cinema certainly have the patience for it. As is, though, moments feel too precious, too in a rush to resolve — a late-life reunion with Yuan (Joan Chen), for instance, feels like the beginning of an entirely new act in Pin-Jui’s life, but it comes amid the film’s closing minutes. It’s poignant and gentle, but thinly so.
In a year where a Korean film won Best Picture at the Oscars, we’re in a stellar time for American audiences to open themselves up to Asian cinema. While it doesn’t stack up to the films it’s clearly indebted to, Tigertail still feels like a solid, personal debut, underpinned by some incredible performances from Ma, Lee, and others. One hopes that neophytes to Asian cinema will see this, be swept up in its accessible charms, and use it as a stepping stone to probe deeper into one of the most richly rewarding regions of moviemaking. And for Yang, a dipped toe in the water necessary to take greater chances with his second effort.
Tigertail is currently available on Netflix.