Tigertail Netflix Alan yang

Tigertail comes from the heart

This highly personal film from television writer Alan Yang tells a multi-generational immigrant story.

How well do we know our parents, really? Obviously, there’s some margin of error. Anyone who has been around their parents long enough knows more or less how they act and react to things. Those of us who have a healthy enough relationship with our parents can easily go and say “my mother is like this” and “my father tends to be like that.” But the fact is that our relationship with our parents, in most cases, is a curated experience. We came into it at a certain point and it was decided that this is what we were going to be told about whatever it was that happened before we came into the picture. That’s obviously an imperfect scenario in the best cases. It’s one that’s bound to be messed up when you’re an immigrant who has immigrated to escape the hardships of your home country. Not every immigrant came to America to escape trauma and hardships, but some did — which is exactly where Alan Yang’s Tigertail lives.

Obviously deeply personal if not necessarily exactly autobiographical, Tigertail tells the story of Pin-jui — played by Hing Chi-Lee as a young man and by Tzi Ma, of Arrival and The Farewell fame, as a middle-aged man — a Taiwanese man who has lived in America since his early 20s. At the beginning of the film, Pin-jui has a rather strained relationship with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Though it doesn’t exactly seem hostile, their conversations are forced and uncomfortable. Pin-jui has returned from Taiwan following the death of his grandmother Minghua (Yang Kuei-mei), who raised him as a boy following the “disappearance” of his parents. (Pin-jui considers her his mother. Everyone in his family knows her as such.) 

We then learn about his youth in the rice fields and his long friendship with a young girl named Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), which eventually blossoms into a budding relationship in adulthood. Pin-jui knows that they’ll never be able to marry; Yuan is from a good family and he isn’t, which he feels dooms the relationship and essentially prevents him from even thinking about it long-term. Pin-jui entertains a dream of moving to America to escape the crushing boredom of his factory job, so when the factory owner offers him the opportunity to do just that if he marries his awkward daughter Zhenzhen, Pin-jui jumps at the opportunity — even if it means leaving Yuan behind.

I say that Tigertail is perhaps more personal than autobiographical because I don’t know much about Alan Yang’s real life, barring the fact that he is the son of Taiwanese immigrants and a television writer-director. But it’s interesting to note that there is no real Yang analogue in the film (in fact, scenes with John Cho were shot and cut from the final product, suggesting that there perhaps was a Yang analogue at some point) and it strays rather far from the “how do I reach out to my father” sort of vanity project that it appears to be on the surface.

Much of the film is either in Taiwanese or Mandarin, and Yang brings an extremely obvious contrast to the two halves of the film. The sequences in Taiwan and the subsequent America-in-the-’70s sequences are colourful, dream-like and elegiac, sometimes going as far as bringing to mind a more restrained Wong Kar-Wai. The sequences in America with the older Pin-jui, however, are Sundance 101: monotone and filled with halting, uncertain dialogue and long swaths of malaise.

This is obviously a deliberate decision by Yang, but the whiplash induced by the shuffling between those two tones takes some getting used to. All of the period footage is shot on super-saturated and grainy film stock, which is automatically more compelling than the drab present-day material, which is considerably less interesting. That decision represents just about the only false move in Tigertail, which is both gentle and moving and a bit hard to grasp. Obviously, the specificity of the story will speak more clearly to people in the same position as Yang — which I am pointedly not. 

Nevertheless, there’s always something that’s both tremendously moving and somewhat distancing about stories that are this personal. On the outside, it feels a bit thinly-sketched — perhaps overly reverent to the source of it all. Tigertail is the type of film that was made, ultimately, to reach a handful of people whose story it is — the fact that we get to see it is just a bonus. ■

Tigertail is on Netflix Canada now.

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