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Tigertail – A Poignantly Personal Family Story

Tigertail was released on Netflix April 10th. Stream it now. Also there are some spoilers ahead.

Tigertail is the story of a man’s life journey, from living in Taiwan, immigrating to America with very little resources, and getting old experiencing loneliness, regret, and trauma along the way. Based on the real life of director Alan Yang’s father, you can feel the closeness and care with which this film was put together. This personal relationship with the story gives it an emotional touch that I haven’t seen in many other movies. It reminded me of how I felt watching films like The Big Sick and Honey Boy, two other films based largely on the creators’ own lives. And look, if you have as much time as I do these days, all three of these great films are available on streaming services and you should see them.

As with real life, Tigertail was not a perfectly crafted narrative. Just like real life, the ending of the film won’t give you a perfect sense of resolution; the characters lives will go on, and the trauma doesn’t disappear. Instead, you get a unique twist on the immigrant story (which there aren’t enough of to begin with). A lot of the stories I’ve seen or read use the newly immigrated parents as foils to their main characters, like in Fresh off the Boat or the Amy Tan books we all read in high school. Tigertail gave all the attention to the father’s struggles before and after arriving to America, giving the viewers the ability to understand their perspective in a new light.

An unsaid part of the American Dream has been forcing immigrants to give up parts of their culture in order to fit in, a sad reality that is thankfully changing in society overall, although clearly not everywhere.But what about the parts of your past that you can’t just throw away? Pin-Jui was able to learn a new language, and gain skills that helped him rise to apparent comfort financially. But when his daughter was crying after making a mistake during her recital, he mimicked what his grandmother taught him, that crying is useless. When his family needed him to be emotionally available, he wasn’t able to ignore the experiences that hardened him living in poverty in occupied Taiwan. And so he tried, like many others do, to create an impenetrable shell to mask it.

Tigertail made me think of the crock pot meals my parents would cook for me growing up. All these different meats and root vegetables were put together, and by dinnertime, it ended up with the same mushy texture and taste. America’s great melting pot isn’t as great as it can be if all of the different people are forced to blend in and hide what makes them unique, their culture and their experiences. Tigertail was one of those vital stories that haven’t been broached in major American media, but was so refreshing to see.

Now let me get to some generic film critique. The film was shot beautifully. Its nonlinear storytelling kept an interesting pace without being overwhelmingly jumpy. Some scenes that feature more mundane actions like slow dancing or dishwashing were allowed to breathe and find emotional resonance. There were also references, whether intentional or not, to other films that made Tigertail more immediately relatable to white American viewers like me. For example, as Pin-Jui was in the back of a taxi with Zhenzhen, it was very reminiscent of the final scene in The Graduate.  

Tzi Ma as Pin-Jui was absolutely brilliant. I thought he brought so much to the role by revealing so many emotions while being so withdrawn at the same time. Hong Chi-Lee as young Pin-Jui was just as great. These two actors powerfully held my attention to the film from start to finish. Without such a strong main character, the film would have fallen completely flat, as there really wasn’t much to the film beyond what directly impacted Pin-Jui.

This brings me to my one critique of the film I have, which was the one-dimensionality of all other characters aside from Pin-Jui. His grandmother was a symbol of the old guard. Yuan symbolized the other path Pin-Jui could have taken, perhaps only a fantasy. Even when they met again decades later, she didn’t have anything of her own to say that didn’t somehow relate to Pin-Jui. Pin-Jui’s daughter was there as a mirror for Pin-Jui to finally reflect on his own shortcomings and opportunities for growth. Zhenzhen faded in and out as needed for Pin-Jui. Marrying her was his ticket to America, then she was little more than a housemaker, a mother, and eventually called to help him realize he needed to become more available to Angela.

Very few films make me wish the runtime was longer. Tigertail was one of those movies, for better and worse. I could have watched Pin-Jui’s life story unfold even more, and also would have liked more depth from the secondary characters, as their perspectives would have been just as compelling. But what mattered most, how affected I was at the end, made up for any of these criticisms. For such a personal story, it felt relatable, especially in this time of quarantine where we all are having our perceptions of what connection means altered. If you have Netflix, I strongly suggest taking time to watch it yourself.

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