Film review: Tigertail is a touching tribute to Asian-American immigrants

★★★☆☆

Tigertail is a deeply personal homage to the sacrifices of Asian-American immigrants by Master of None co-creator Alan Yang.

Alan Yang’s Tigertail was quietly released on Netflix this past weekend, and has firmly positioned itself as a vivid and emotionally devastating exploration into sacrifice, love and regret. All wrapped up in a Taiwanese man’s pursuit of the American Dream, the release of Yang’s debut directorial feature couldn’t have been timed better. In a climate where xenophobia is rife amid the coronavirus epidemic, this homage to the stories of Asian-Americans captures the spirit and light of the communities within which it is set.

Tigertail follows the life of Pin-Jui, played by the spectacular Tzi Ma in his later life in America, and Lee Hong-Chi in his 20s, largely spent struggling to get by in Taiwan. We are greeted by youthfully energetic scenes of life in Taiwan, as the romance between Pin-Jui and Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang) play out in visions soaked in light and colour. These recollections fade into insignificance as we see an older reserved and reclusive Pin-Jui now living in America, seemingly quietened by his struggles to lay bare his true feelings of loneliness, and regret.

In the awkward silences of the fraught father-daughter dynamic with Angela (Christine Ko), we see how his older, aloof self pales in comparison to his former, gregarious self from flashbacks. Tigertail goes back and forth, tracing the events which allowed him to achieve the American Dream, but cost him the adventurous, outgoing attitude of his youth. It does this, however, with mixed results.

The penniless years in Taiwan are filled with ecstasy and warmth, with Yang looking to emulate the affectionate atmospheres of Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. The scenes between Pin-Jui and Yuan pulsate with romantic fervour, as rosy colour palettes and tightly knit frames create a palpable desire in each scene.

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The light and warmth of these early years fade, as Pin-Jui chases the American Dream, accepting an arranged marriage with his boss’s daughter, ZhenZhen (Kunjue Li). Abandoning his love and poverty in Taiwan, he settles for a loveless marriage and ambition in America. The early days in America are some of the most poignant, with the repetitive cycles of his endless shifts at a crummy corner shop blending into the boredom of ZhenZhen’s trips to the Laundromat. ZhenZhen and Pin-Jui are both alone and yet together, tied only by their dark, dingy apartment, and their hopes of safety and comfort.

As we move to the present, the film feels disjointed, and heavy-handed, with the weakness of Yang’s script being partially resurrected by Tzi Ma’s role as the emotive epicentre of the film. Tzi Ma’s acting is measured, and calculated, so much so that when a smile is uttered, it feels miraculous and nourishing. Pin-Jui is fully-formed, yet the breakdown of his relationship with both his daughter and former wife is questionable, as his callousness feels misplaced and abrupt. This relationship doesn’t have the tight focus of the Taiwanese flashbacks, and leaves you yearning for something more. The distinct lack in the characterisation of Angela, and the painfully expository conversations hinder the film’s potential.

Given Yang’s status as co-creator of Master of None, the critically acclaimed comedy series that explores the multi-generational struggles of Asian-American families, Tigertail feels deeply familiar in its focus. Master of None was able to bask in both comedy and the promotion of social cohesion, presenting these everyday struggles in accessible ways, rather than seeming anomalous and “other”. These agendas remain in Tigertail in vastly different formats, as the film feels touched with personal sentimentality.

The film is bookended by voiceovers who we initially believe to be Pin-Jui, describing his upbringing in Taiwan, stating “[I felt] so alone, that sometimes, I saw things because I wanted to see them.” These voiceovers are used integrally during the film’s emotional fever pitch, at the point in which all the collective feelings of remorse and reflection release. It is only upon further inquiry that we discover these words, and this voice, is that of Yang’s father, solidifying the film’s status as a broad, universal tale of Asian-American experience, even if it’s an uneven one.

Tigertail is available for you to stream on Netflix worldwide, now. 


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Hope Talbot

TV, film and culture writer interested in all things visual. Be it the artwork of Kathe Kollwitz, the films of Wes Anderson and Studio Ghibli, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge's beautiful face, I'll write about.