Drawing on director Alan Yang’s family story to depict a Taiwanese migrant in America, Tigertail is beautifully shot and acted, but the film doesn’t live up to its emotional potential. By Michelle Law.

Alan Yang’s Tigertail

Hong-Chi Lee in a scene from Alan Yang’s Tigertail.
Hong-Chi Lee in a scene from Alan Yang’s Tigertail.
Credit: Chen Hsiang Liu / Netflix

Alan Yang, the writer, producer and director of Tigertail, is perhaps best known for co-creating the Netflix series Master of None with Aziz Ansari. The series heralded a point of difference from his earlier work in the Hollywood television comedy scene: Master of None shone a spotlight on race, exploring the lives of young people of colour and immigrant families in America with sophistication, style and wit. Yang had begun his writing career like many in Hollywood – working for Harvard University’s famed comedy publication, The Harvard Lampoon – before a short stint on South Park, and eventually becoming a staff writer and director on Parks and Recreation and The Good Place. He knew comedy, and he did it well.

However, it was an episode in the first season of Master of None titled “Parents” that blasted Yang into the Hollywood stratosphere. The episode followed Dev, the show’s protagonist, and his friend Brian as they learnt about the personal sacrifices made by their parents – who had migrated to the United States from India and Taiwan – to ensure their children enjoyed better lives. “Parents” was lauded by viewers and critics for its nuanced treatment of the generational and cultural gaps that exist between immigrants and their Westernised children. Fans created an entire Reddit discussion thread about it, and Yang and Ansari won the Emmy Award for best writing in a comedy series for the episode.

It’s often said that writers return to scratch at the same wounds, and Tigertail, Yang’s debut feature film, also released on Netflix, is in many ways an expansion of the themes explored in “Parents”. What lives did our parents lead before having us? What identities did they abandon after parenthood? What is the fallout of choosing either autonomy or responsibility? Tigertail spans decades and continents, jumping between Taiwan in the 1950s to 1970s and New York in the 1970s and the present day. It’s also a trilingual film, shifting between Hokkien, Mandarin and English.

Pin-Jui spends his childhood living with his farmer grandparents on their rice fields in Taiwan. His father is dead and he yearns for his mother, who is working to earn enough money for them to live together. But he finds comfort in his friendship with a neighbour, Yuan. As young adults, Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) and Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang) become lovers; the two are wild and carefree and head over heels. But Pin-Jui, unable to stand the thought of his mother’s physical suffering at the factory where they both work, makes a decision for the betterment of his family: he will marry his wealthy boss’s daughter, migrate to America and lift his mother out of poverty. In present-day New York, the elderly Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is the quintessential Asian father – stoic, impenetrable, and awkward about showing emotions and physical affection to his children, particularly his adult daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). The pair have a strained relationship, largely born of the fact they are similar people, both stubborn and uncommunicative.

In Tigertail, Yang has unashamedly presented us with a migrant story. Among Asian diaspora communities, there is a pressure for storytellers to resist telling migrant stories because they can reinforce our otherness and the notion we will always be, in the dominant culture’s psyche, recent arrivals to be exoticised rather than fully formed humans. Indeed, in the wake of Covid-19, violent attacks against Asian Americans, Asian Australians and other Asian diasporas have been on the rise, highlighting the discrimination that still exists. It’s a constant push and pull, with some writers actively resisting the migrant narrative, while others lean into it. Yang is of both minds, saying in a recent GQ interview, “Obviously it’s natural to make movies about our families and our heritage, because that’s an important part of our lives … But we need movies where we play different types of characters: I’d love to see an Asian Indiana Jones, or an Asian Ron Burgundy, or an Asian Furiosa.”

Aesthetically, the film is gorgeous; it’s the love child of New York chicness and smouldering 1970s Taiwanese and Chinese cinema – Yang has cited Wong Kar-Wai, Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien as influences for the film. Scenes of Taiwan in the past are shot on 16mm film, imbuing Pin-Jui’s youth with nostalgia and sumptuousness that contrasts harshly with the mundane, gentrified suburbs of New York in the present day, which is shot on stark, cold digital. Yet although aesthetics alone certainly carry merit, there is a sense in this film that they take precedence over emotion, which feels wrong for a story that is deeply emotional. It bears mentioning that Tigertail is inspired by Yang’s own family – his Taiwanese immigrant father, and the strained relationship shared by his father and his sister.

One of the film’s main difficulties is that despite Pin-Jui being positioned as the protagonist, Tigertail pivots between being a story about a man, a story about a daughter, and a story about a man’s relationship with his daughter. Things become further muddied when we are given glimpses of Angela’s personal life, only to have those glimpses receive little to no examination. Pin-Jui often laments that Angela works too hard, yet we never learn what it is that she does for a living. Eventually, it becomes difficult to care about Pin-Jui and Angela’s relationship because we don’t know what is at stake for them if they drift apart. And you so want to care.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that it’s unclear what Pin-Jui wants – as a young man, and then as an old man – which is ironically and detrimentally due to the character’s restrained nature. Because Pin-Jui is so withholding until the film’s final moments, the clarity you’re seeking about his desires never arrives, perhaps because what he’s internally struggling with exists entirely in the past. Even when Pin-Jui has an encounter with Yuan (Joan Chen) in the present day, he again sinks into reflectiveness rather than taking action. There is great meaning in what goes unsaid, but how little can you say before the audience’s relationship with the characters also starts to deteriorate? It’s a challenging balance to strike, and Yang doesn’t quite hit the emotional mark.

However, what’s notable about the film are its enthralling performances. Tzi Ma is commanding and heart-rending in this leading role, and Hong-Chi Lee is the kind of charismatic heartthrob teenage girls will be tacking to their bedroom walls. A standout performance comes from Yang Kuei-Mei (best known for her role as Jia-Jen in Eat Drink Man Woman) as young Pin-Jui’s mother, infusing great lightness and pathos into a character who, although marginal, influences the film’s entire emotional trajectory.

Yang has proved himself to be a jack of all trades, working across many genres and mediums to great success. He’s also co-created the Amazon dramedy series Forever, and produced Little America, an anthology series about immigrants in America for Apple TV+ – there goes that wound being scratched again. What’s exciting will be witnessing Yang come into his own as a director and start mastering the voice he’s been honing over the course of an already flying career.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2020 as "Couching tiger".

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