A man meets his childhood sweetheart after years. Initial fumbling due to the unintimated parting gives way to the usual good intentioned, frothy conversation about families. She’s conspicuously satiated with her world; he has issues with his daughter and has trouble connecting with her. The woman gently nudges him to open up on his wounds to his daughter perhaps that will assuage and encourage her to do the same. This repressed open wound, which leads to a trail of miscommunication, forms the delicate, jagged heart of the new Netflix film by Alan Yang, Tigertail. The film charts the experiences of Pin-Jui, as he grows up somewhere in the countryside Taiwanese farms, shifting to the industrial city and the journey he makes to America, looking for economic opportunity, a way out of misery and the stench of poverty that engulfs him and his mother. To protect her from factory work hazards and extenuate her difficult life, he makes compromises in matters of the heart.
We follow Pin, on a conscientiously maintained arc, as he transitions from an exuberant bachelor (played with effervescent charm by Lee Hong-Chi) to a man who deliberately strips of that ebullient streak and retreats into his own silo. Yang toggles between these two decisively dissimilar avatars and slowly eases us into this unassuming character portrait. The younger Pin is characterised by a swashbuckling verve and endearing charisma. There is a lot of cheerful abandon in the scenes where he and his childhood lover, Yuan, are together. He seems to inhale life ferociously, takes wild chances and approaches situations with captivating daring. Yang captures a Wong kar Wai-like dreaminess in the dance (Pin says he learnt dance from American movies, in a charming aside) and escapade scenes, and it is primarily here that the film attains a sparkling light-footedness.
The flush of first love is what bolsters young Pin and keeps him going especially when he is aware the next morning brings with it inevitable hardship of grueling factory work. This singular experience becomes his bulwark against the bleakness of his circumstance. But soon he realises quite unsentimentally, pressed by practical urges, that this is a pipe dream, and only he can salvage his reality. The romance is interrupted, and lured by a cushy life in the West, he strikes an understanding with his employer, Old Li resulting in a marriage proposition to the latter’s daughter.
Zhenzhen, his wife, also shares an interesting arc. She grows from a subservient wifely prototype into a woman who is unafraid of reclaiming her happiness at a stage when most women would have made peace with their habitual unhappy marriages. Early on she gripes she has nothing in common with her husband. Her Taiwanese neighbour tells her, “eventually the life you have shared together will be what you have in common”, summarizing an existence of so many couples across cultures. Yang tells us a thing of two about her ambitious spirit but it is delineated so superficially that her transition does not register the power and strength of its being. Unfortunately Pin monopolises most of the nuance in the writing.
Yang devotes too much attention and detail to stressing his protagonist’s inner life at the expense of meticulous development of the characters surrounding him. Yang constructs and posits the strained father daughter relationship as the central vector to serve his deeply personal inquiry into first generation Taiwanese American experience, and the haunting effects it engenders on their children. In interviews, Yang has talked how the film draws from his own relationship with his father, and his father’s memories and experiences. Therefore, Tigertail is ostensibly a cultural act of self discovery, a hybrid that marries the emotional truth of anecdotal situations with imaginative liberties.
Pin’s fiercely independent daughter, Angela, mirrors him in his attribute of a bruised solitariness. Like him, she has problems getting along with most people and despite neither of the two truly understanding the other; they seem to quietly know that they are bound intimately in ways intersecting the generation gap and inheritance. But Yang does not bother to give Angela’s conflicts and predicament much shading or thought. We are told of her lover frustrated with her ways, but there is no more detail on this front. Christine Ko struggles valiantly to elevate her underwritten character and manages to imbue her tepid part with some personality, bringing a steely confidence and spunk.
Tigertail functions most effectively as long as it is a memory piece. The Taiwanese section is mined with greater acuity, a relaxed understanding and a loving brio whereas the situations arising when the characters cope with the cost of the pursuit of the American dream and the ensuing loneliness are not recorded with any fresh insight. The vacuity of looking back at a life has no particular inventive stroke in its recreation. The modern day scenes, designed as bare and clinical and sparse, are almost dull. The staidness feels deliberately taped on, than a slowly acquired organic accretion. The sombreness lacks depth. Of course, Tigertail has all the predictable, recognizable beats of an immigrant story; they are dutifully adhered to. In an understated fashion, Yang informs us of the tired rhythms of the immigrant life: the relentless striving for a well established existence, the ache for familiarity in an utterly alien culture, surrounded by absolute strangers. Zhenzhen, otherwise crabbed in her small apartment, visits the laundry daily even if she doesn’t need to, just so she can see new faces.
The film made me constantly wonder and groan about the obtrusively clumsy balancing of the past and present and why the storytelling strikes as so breathlessly hurried, despite the heavy handed introspective and meditative air of it, and the scarcity of skillful, generous writing that allows its characters breadth and space to evolve, as they eventually all do. Nigel Bluck, who has done the cinematography, evokes a richly lush ’60s Taiwan, with breathtaking elegance. Edward Yang’s spiritual ghost hovers unmistakably over Tigertail.
It is Tzi Ma who sustains the film’s emotional core and keeps it afloat. His performance, wonderfully frayed and unshowily knowing, is a miracle. Throughout the film, he holds back dignified, exercising masterful restraint and remains marvelously, placidly still. So when he ultimately flashes his devastating vulnerability and expresses himself fully, you feel swept away by a magnificent emotional surge that never amounts to audience manipulation. It feels totally earned and that’s the film’s biggest victory.
Tigertail has gentle melancholy in its bones, culminating in an unforgettably poignant, poetic final shot. The film could have benefited from more patient writing, the contemplation should have extended to the rest of the characters too, but it is a vital addition to a newly emerging Asian American cinematic canon. It might not have the propulsive boisterous energy of Crazy Rich Asians or the keenly observed intimacy of The Farewell, but it has an undeniable timeliness and urgency.
Conclusively Yang’s film is equal parts swooning and frustrating, but ultimately moving.