Tigertail, the directorial debut from Master Of None’s Alan Yang, lived as a script on the writer and actor’s computer for years, in a document titled “Family Movie”. The film may now be named after the Taiwanese village Yang’s father grew up in, but family is still its central pillar and, while it takes a look at the specific experiences of both his dad and a generation of Taiwanese people who emigrated to America, it also offers subtle lessons about human connection that cross cultural and generational divides.
According to the American Dream, anyone can attain success and move up through society’s ranks if they make sacrifices and work hard. That idea is key to Tigertail, which flits between modern-day America and 1950s Taiwan, reconciling middle-aged, quiet Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) with his younger, more enlivened self (Hong-Chi Lee) who dreams of heading west for a better life (particularly the scenes set in the past which are so immersive that when one flash-forward begins with the shrill ring of Pin-Jui’s mobile, it feels so disorientating, so alien, it’s like you’ve just been shaken awake from an ultra-vivd dream). As a young man of not many means, he spends his days toiling at a local sugar factory and his nights with girlfriend Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), his vision of America puncturing through his daily existence at regular intervals. “Someday I’ll go there,” he tells Yuan. “I’ll bring my mum. She won’t have to work anymore.”
Eventually, he does go there but, true to life and true to the American Dream, it’s a move that isn’t without sacrifice – one that he knowingly accepts and others that crop up as life continues. The former, love, is a loss that lingers throughout the rest of the film. When Pin-Jui’s wife Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) declines his offer to dance in the living room of their cramped New York apartment to the same record he once moved to with Yuan, his face is contorted with regret. Years later, when he reconnects with his ex, you can’t help but wonder what their lives would be like had he chosen love over this idea of a better future for himself and his mother.
Pin-Jui’s sacrifices also colour his expectations of his children. In a conversation with daughter Angela (Christine Ko), he suggests her then-fiancé isn’t good enough for her because he doesn’t make enough to support her – the same argument he noted Yuan’s parents would have had about him back in Taiwan. Their relationship is distant and a little awkward, playing on the stereotype of the stoic, unemotional Asian dad. But as the film progresses, a tipping point is reached and the pair begin to work towards a deeper connection.
Like elder Pin-Jui, Tigertail is quiet and understated. It’s a film that is relatable regardless of whether you or your family share the immigrant experiences documented within it – all of us have regrets, most of us are just hoping for stronger bonds with those around us and a better life for those who come after us. Both in these times and in more settled ones, its a beautiful reminder that being there for, and working to understand, each other makes life much brighter and richer, no matter your economic circumstances.
- Director: Alan Yang
- Starring: Christine Ko, Fiona Fu, Joan Chen
- Release date: April 10