TIGERTAIL (2020) (NETFLIX)
SYNOPSIS: A man reflects on the lost love of his youth and his long-ago journey from Taiwan to America as he begins to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
It’s a particularly difficult time to be an Asian in America right now, which makes ‘Tigertail’ all the more resonant.
Written and directed by ‘Master of None’ co-creator Alan Yang, the deeply personal drama criss-crosses between present day New York City and the 1950s/1960s in Taiwan.
The latter opens the film, describing how the lead protagonist Pin Jui had met his childhood sweetheart Yuan while staying with his grandmother in the countryside, and had reunited with her when they are in their early twenties. Alas, fate had a different destiny for Pin Jui, who is offered the opportunity by his factory boss to relocate to America in search of a better life, but only if Ping Jui brings the boss’ daughter Zhenzhen (Li Kunjue) along with him.
Yang doesn’t linger too much on the inevitable breakup between Ping Jui and Yuan; instead, he focuses the section set in the past on their marriage of convenience, showing how the couple started out distant and never managed to bridge that gulf in their relationship. Despite having two kids together, Ping Jui and Zhenzhen eventually separate after their children are old enough to leave home.
That pivotal scene halfway into the film explains why we never see Ping Jui’s daughter Angela (Christine Ko) with both her parents, though it isn’t why their father-daughter relationship is strained. Besides how work has consumed Angela, Ping Jui disagrees with Angela’s choices in life, especially her boyfriend Eric; on the other hand, Angela resents her father’s disapproval, begrudging him for never being supportive of her.
The beauty in Yang’s tale is how he lets the pieces of the story fall in place to connect past and present. Ping Jui was willing to give up his one true love in order to come to America, hoping that the move will allow him to give his mother a comfortable retirement. Yet his mother never decided to move over after all, leaving him stuck in an loveless marriage with Zhenzhen. Those regrets have in turn resulted in his present-day stoicism, preventing him from being emotionally present to Angela.
There is both an individual and collective level to appreciate the narrative. On an individual level, Ping Jui’s marriage with Zhenzhen reflects the pragmatic attitude of East Asian societies towards matrimony; and Ping Jui’s dispassionate relationship with his daughter is emblematic of how Asian fathers tend to regard their children. At the collective level, Ping Jui’s experience is no different from the thousands, even millions, of immigrants searching for the American dream, their hopes eventually drained by the reality of a life of labour.
Drawing from his dad’s own relocation and assimilation into American life, Yang isn’t however out to make a political statement; rather, it is first and foremost an intimate story, focused on Ping Jui as he reconciles with his past (who returns in the form of Joan Chen) in order to make peace with his present. It is therefore also an excellent showcase for Tzi Ma, the veteran actor delivering a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a man living with regrets.
Credit also goes to the excellent production team Yang has assembled, ensuring not just that rural Taiwan feels texturally authentic, but also that New York is depicted in all its scuzziness. These landscapes come alive in their own right in the movie, and their disparity makes it all the more real just what Ping Jui (and many others like him) had experienced in their acclimation and disenchantment.
Like we said at the start, there is even greater resonance seeing how the Covid-19 pandemic has stirred a wave of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. Yet as the movie shows, these individuals made their own sacrifices to start a new life in a distant land in the past, and deserve not the sort of vitriol they have had to endure in recent weeks. And together with the inevitable homecoming at the end of the movie, you’ll discover the significance of the title of the film moving and utterly poignant.
Review by Gabriel Chong