Recommendation: Not quite a home run narrative debut, but a story that has its resonant moments while managing to capture the complexities of generational family dynamics. 7/10.
IMDB Synopsis: A Taiwanese factory worker leaves his homeland to seek opportunity in America, where he struggles to find connection while balancing family and newfound responsibilities in this multi-generational drama.
Tigertail is the first narrative feature-length effort from writer/director Alan Yang (Master of None, Park & Rec), which is (very) loosely based on his family’s history. Breaking away from comedy, Yang tells an intergenerational family drama that plays out over multiple time periods in our protagonist Pin-Jui’s life, as he reflects on the decisions he’s made and how it’s shaped his and his family’s path. Certainly not a grand slam, Tigertail‘s time-skipping storytelling device is a little discombobulating at first, and at times feels a little too lean. But despite its flaws and it’s fairly linear path, Tigertail illuminates the complexities of life, from the powerful and audacious ignorance of youth to the the supposed merits of hard work and determination and finally, to the painful recollections of a lifetime of hard decisions.
Tigertail is shown via vignettes throughout Pin-Jui’s life. As we see the story through his eyes, of course we’re looking at his life through rose-colored lenses, but all the main characters seem to be three-dimensional, showing range. By jumping around, it’s easy to get lost in the first half, but we get a remarkably deep understanding of why elder Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is who he is. His stoic-ness—and stubbornness—stems from pin-Jui’s as a child (Zhi-Hao Yang), impoverished and surreptitiously living with his grandmother while his mother looked for work in the city. Due to his unregistered status, Pin-Jui was hidden from the military, which stripped away the carelessness of childhood and replaced it with the harsh realities of the world.
Young adult Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee), was a spirited factory worker living in a small apartment with his mother, who snuck out at night to dance with his girlfriend Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang). Charming but saddled with impossible dreams of making it big in America so he can provide an early retirement for his mother. But the factory boss will bankroll this move if he agrees to marry his daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) who is Pin-Jui’s polar opposite. A decision made with his head rather than his heart, he alters the course of not only his life and character, and moves America with Zhenzhen, leaving behind Taiwan, his youth, and Yuan, without a word.
Further jumps in Pin-Jui’s past show the slow yet inexorable transformation to the man he is today: A successful, well meaning, yet divorced and emotionally closed off father. Coming to America with nothing, with a wife whom he didn’t love, with the weight of familial expectation on his shoulders wore Pin-Jui down into a typical Asian father. A great provider, but not much else, as vignettes show him transferring his joyless childhood onto his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Tigertail doesn’t only dwell on the negative, as Pin-Jui and Angela begin to connect more by film’s end. As a father, he learns to be a more supportive parent, while in turn she learns about her father’s life with its joy, heartbreak and nuance. Learning that parents are just as complex as their children, just as ignorant, and just as vulnerable.
Ultimately, the beauty of Tigertail is that there’s no clean resolution. The ending isn’t happy or unhappy. It shows that life is hard. That family is complicated. That sacrifice is never easy. That choices made ripple across generations. That it is never too late to reflect and change your personal narrative. Tigertail could have benefitted from a longer narrative, but regardless, from the rice fields of Taiwan to the streets of New York, Alan Yang’s Asian-American tale is a feat of incredible human storytelling. Watch it on Netflix now.
MVP: Young adult Pin-Jui is charming, determined, frustrated, and surprising. In effect, human. While the emotional heft relies on older Pin-Jui, the younger storyline is much more dynamic.
Highlights: The gorgeous shots of rice fields in Taiwan. The use of music (an Alan Yang classic).
Director: Alan Yang
Studio: Netflix // Release date: April 10, 2020