Those familiar with Alan Yang’s work may predominantly know him from television, specifically, from his writing on sitcoms like “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None.” The April 10 release of his directorial debut “Tigertail” on Netflix comes as a bit of a surprise because of its clear departure in genre and execution.
Yang is no stranger to writing about immigrant identities and family dynamics. At its best, “Master of None” explores the relationship between its protagonist and his parents, both immigrants from India, in the standout season one episode “Parents,” which garnered Yang and co-writer Aziz Ansari a Primetime Emmy Award for comedy writing. But while “Parents” was structured as a tongue-in-cheek, satirical narrative, “Tigertail” is a much more traditional, straightforward drama. Despite the film’s traditionality, Yang’s script and direction are largely successful in bringing to life the melancholy tale of a Taiwanese immigrant man looking back on his life with regret.
“Tigertail” follows an older Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), a man living in New York City reflecting back on his life as a child and young adult in the Huwei Township in Taiwan. The film opens with scenes from Pin-Jui’s childhood, as he works in rice fields on the outskirts of urban Huwei. With gentle narration from the older Pin-Jui, we learn of his working-class upbringing and his budding romance with the well-to-do Yuan (Joan Chen), a childhood friend he reconnects with as a young adult in the city, but who he feels is impossible to be in a relationship with because of their difference in social status. Scenes from Pin-Jui’s past are intercut with scenes from the present, in which Pin-Jui interacts with his estranged American daughter, Angela (Christine Ko), following the death of his mother.
It’s an interesting setup to a story that feels rather predictable. The rest of the film involves Pin-Jui’s attempts to reconcile his guilt over the past, which saw him sacrificing his own happiness and his relationship with Yuan to move to the United States in order to provide a better life for his mother in Taiwan. He settles in the United States, but spends most of his life in a loveless marriage, operating a small neighborhood grocery store. His daughter repeatedly makes efforts to mend their relationship, but Pin-Jui remains closed off.
“Tigertail” may be more of a tragedy than a feel-good film, but it is a story that follows the reconciliation of its central father-daughter relationship and the redemption of its protagonist. Although its narrative beats are predictable, its emotional core is wholly authentic. Yang reportedly wrote the script as an homage to his own father’s life as a Taiwanese immigrant. Released at a time when Asians and Asian Americans have been subject to targeted xenophobic rhetoric and actions, the importance of a story about the experience of an Asian immigrant in the United States, especially one that is primarily in Taiwanese, cannot be underscored enough.
And while most of the performances support Yang’s message of authenticity — Ma and Hong Chi-Lee as the older and young-adult Pin-Jui, respectively, are both especially excellent in the main role — the scenes involving Pin-Jui and Angela often falter in comparison. Whereas most of the film is in Taiwanese, these scenes are all in English. Although Ko adequately captures the tension in Angela’s interactions with her father, her line deliveries are often stilted and occasionally overdramatic in an otherwise subtle film. If these scenes were not as central to the film’s emotional arc, the performances would not have been as critical. But the most important relationship in the film ultimately comes off as undeveloped and underwhelming.
Despite this, “Tigertail” manages to be a personal and moving film, as the script is aided greatly by Nigel Bluck’s soft, crisp visual stylings and Michael Brook’s emotionally stirring score. Yang successfully crafts a poignant tale that not only captures one man’s immigrant experience, but also the nuanced interactions of multiple generations in the Asian diaspora. And while his story conveys the depth and sincerity of these interactions, it does so in an authentic, rather than explanatory, way, making “Tigertail” one of the most heartening and important films of the moment.