REVIEW: Tigertail (2020)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of Tigertail — Directed by Alan Yang.

While most Netflix subscribers are watching and discussing the immensely popular docuseries Tiger King, an ambitious film of a similar title has been released on the streaming service. Netflix’s Tigertail is the directorial feature film debut of Alan Yang, an Emmy-winning writer who has previously produced, written, and directed shows such as Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and Netflix’s Master of None. This 90-minute Asian-American feature film is loosely inspired by Yang’s own family history and, in particular, his father’s story.

Alan Yang’s Tigertail tells the life-story of, Pin-Jui (primarily played by Tzi Ma and Lee Hong-chi), a Taiwanese immigrant to the United States. While he was raised by his grandmother, young Pin-Jui worked in a rice field near Huwei. As a boy, he once met Yuan Lee (primarily played by Joan Chen and Yo-Hsing Fang) in the rice fields. Later in life, they reconnected and their friendship blossomed into romance. But they lived very different lives and came from very different families. Pin-Jui had always been poor, and, eventually, he found that the only way to provide a better life for his family was to marry his boss’ daughter and travel to the United States. Now a lonely elderly man, he struggles to connect with his daughter, Angela (played by Christine Ko), who needs her father now more than ever.

Tigertail is a film about regret and the sacrifices that some parents make to make life easier for their children and their family. Yang does a good job of showing how certain experiences can make individuals stoic and aloof. This is the story of an immigrant, his arranged marriage, and the shared experiences of a father and a daughter whose relationship has gone cold, even though they need each other to open up. These are experiences that I am sure are very relatable, and we can all relate to regret and the long-lasting effects of it.

Yang’s film jumps back and forth between Pin-Jui’s childhood, youth, and his present-day life, which is the framing device. Via beautiful flashbacks, the film succeeds in showcasing the main character’s past through nostalgic and cinematic rose-colored glasses, but I also think that the film starts to stumble once the flashbacks show the main character in America. The arranged marriage feels realistic, but it also feels a little bit underdeveloped, although Yang should be praised for the way that he brings Zhenzhen, Pin-Jui’s wife, to life. Refreshingly, she feels like a fully-formed character.

There are a couple of performances that I want to highlight here. I think that Christine Ko makes a positive impression in her somewhat underwritten scenes. Tzi Ma acts out the aloofness of his character very well, and when he truly opens up and smiles, he lights up the room. But it was actually Lee Hong-chi’s performance that made the biggest impression on me. I think that he really captures a youthful mischievousness and charm in his early scenes, so much so that it is heartbreaking and jarring when his American dream becomes a waking nightmare.

One thing that doesn’t work as well as intended is the idea that Pin-Jui has these imagined visions due to extreme loneliness. Early on in the film, through the use of voice-over, it is established that Pin-Jui would sometimes imagine things that were not there, but it is only ever brought back once and in an unexciting way, in my opinion. It feels like a wasted opportunity to do something more cinematic with the film. So while it is an ambitious film, it doesn’t do enough with the story, and I think it is way too short. It’s also a little bit disappointing that the flashbacks work much better than the framing device, which takes up a lot of the runtime eventually. My final negative note is that I think Yang’s final shot, though intricate and well-shot, doesn’t achieve the emotional impact that the director is clearly aiming for. However, your mileage may vary.

Tigertail is an ambitious and promising but somewhat incomplete directorial feature film debut, and, frustratingly, with some fine-tuning this could’ve been a truly memorable debut. I can’t say that this film swept me off of my feet the way that I expected it to, but this story of a Taiwanese immigrant’s American dream has several moments of haunting beauty and uncompromising regret. Its saddest moments may not hit as hard as I think they were clearly intended to, but, on the whole, Tigertail is a solid debut for Alan Yang. I just wish it was a little bit more than that.

6.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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