Director – Alan Yang
Cast – Tzi Ma, Hong-Chi Lee, Christine Ko, Joan Chen, Yo-Hsing Fang, Kuei-Mei Yang, Kunjue Li, Fiona Fu
Sincere but sorrowful to a fault, Master of None co-creator Alan Yang’s feature directorial debut, Tigertail, is a movie whose magic is routinely undercut by its own director.
At a little over 90 minutes long but with the potential to sustain itself for at least an hour longer, Tigertail feels like something Harvey Weinstein might have cut together in the 90s, against the will of the filmmaker, perhaps with an army of lawyers hovering about the room.
But Tigertail isn’t a Miramax film from 1996 — although the influence of Hou Hsaio-hsien and Ang Lee is palpable — it is a Netflix movie circa 2020. And whatever freedom Yang must have been given feels slightly squandered.
Watch the Tigertail trailer here
Like that terrific season one episode of Master of None and his Apple TV series Little America, Tigertail is another personal story about immigrants chasing the American dream, lured as if it is some sort of pyramid scheme.
It tells the story of a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan, who left his old life of hardships behind for a new one that is considerably sadder. As a youth, Pin-Jui made the most of what he had. He worked hard, was known to be a chatterbox, and would sneak out on nightly adventures with the woman he loved. As an old man in America, he is near-silent, divorced, and estranged from his only daughter, poised to live out the rest of his years alone.
Tigertail intercuts between the past and present with very little grace. Observed independently, each of the two timelines is wonderful, but such is the stylistic and tonal difference between the two halves that they never come together as a cohesive whole.
Yang, however displays an incredible talent for capturing the mood. I have never been to Taiwan, much less the Taiwan of the 1960s and 70s, but under Yang’s careful eye, the scenes from Pin-Jui’s youth feel most authentic, evocatively shot in the style of Wong Kar-Wai films and brimming with energy. There is hopeful exuberance to these scenes, a carefree sense of freedom, despite the severe economic pressure that the characters are going through.
I understand that Yang is trying to create deliberate parallels between the romanticism of Pin-Jui’s past and the drab misery of his present. Two scenes are especially on-the-nose. As a youth, he felt no shame when he learnt that he couldn’t afford a meal at a fancy restaurant. He simply reprimanded the waiter for his rudeness and ran away with his girlfriend, Yuan. Later, on his first day in America, having left Yuan behind and married another woman, when Pin-Jui realises that he can’t afford a meal at a regular Chinese restaurant, he is overcome with sadness. The song that once made him shrug off his worries and dance, he now associates with the struggles of fitting into a new society.
The modern-day scenes are so stark in their realism that two things happen: first, the past appears to be more magical than it perhaps was, and second, the grimness makes the present feel like a documentary postscript, much like the final moments of Schindler’s List.
Tigertail feels like a condensed telling of an epic story, as if it is the result of just a couple of chats Yang might have had with his own immigrant parents, or, worse, as if it is based off years of conversations that were discarded in favour of a highlights reel.
This might sound harsh, but it’s a film that had such potential, one that showed evidence of an exciting new voice in American filmmaking, that the fact that it couldn’t attain the glory of something like Roma or The Farewell, with which it shares actor Tzi Ma, feels like a tragic loss.