Tigertail Movie Review: Touching story of an Asian immigrant
Tigertail is a bittersweet take on the hard-hitting reality of poverty, the American dream, lost love and unsaid goodbyes
"When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere. Just ask him. If you listen, he will tell you how he got there." These are lines said by Don Draper, the protagonist of the definitive American drama, Mad Men. Watching the new Netflix Original film, Tigertail, I was reminded of this profound quote. And it’s not just because the film's ending is eerily similar to the season 6 finale of the show.
Director: Alan Yang
Cast: Tzi Ma, Hong Chi-Lee, Christine Ko
Directed by Alan Yang, the co-creator of Aziz Ansari's comedy-drama, Master of None, Tigertail is also a full-blown version of the series's second episode, Parents, which chronicles parallel stories of an Asian and an Indian dad. The said episode was empathetic to the fathers' sad struggles and sacrifices to make it to the US, but at the same time, it was funny because of the light-hearted take. Yang's debut directorial venture is about one such Asian dad from Taiwan but the tone here is not humour. It’s a bittersweet take on the hard-hitting reality of poverty, the American dream, lost love and unsaid goodbyes.
The film cuts back and forth between 1950s Taiwan and today's America (before the coronavirus, of course) to tell the story of its protagonist Pin-Jui. Back then Pin-Jui (Hong Chi-Lee) is a handsome youngster, who works with his mom in a factory in the morning and dances at cheap local bars with his friends at night. He has big American dreams and assures he will take his newfound love, Yang (Joan Chen), along with him. They both sing Otis Redding's Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay after making love on the shore of a river. But he makes the hard decision of marrying his boss's daughter to escape poverty and moves with her to the US without even bidding bye to his lover.
In the present, an old Pin-Jui (played by veteran actor Tzi Ma) is a divorcee and a loner, who has just returned from his mother's funeral in Taiwan. His charm has faded away and left behind a grumpy and mean father. His elder daughter Angela (Christine Ko), with whom he doesn't get along, says, "I don't even know how to talk to you. I never have." This father-daughter estranged relationship and their eventual reconciliation is the central piece of Tigertail.
Tigertail, despite telling a not-so-unique story, works mainly because of the way Yang portrays realistic relationships—be it the good one like Pin-Jui's equation with his hard-working mother or the one he has with his wife Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu), which comes across as a contract rather than marriage. The director achieves this by juxtaposing similar situations. It’s, again, an old technique but gets the job done. With Yang, Pin-Jui goes all wild. They eat at a costly restaurant and run off without paying. But in the US, on their first dinner as husband and wife, Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen walk out of the restaurant after looking at the costly menu.
Tzi Ma's effortless performance also makes you easily buy into the predicament of this immigrant. He has to look brooding and stubborn throughout the film but still subtly manages to show his vulnerable side. Tzi Ma exactly portrays what Pin-Jui's wife points out: "You are broken inside." However, his harsh behavior towards his daughter and wife sometimes comes across as a bit excessive. Though we gather that he has not always been like this, there seems like an inexplicable jump between his two personas. We know he is changed for the bad but we don't see it. To ask the viewers to fill in these missing pages is a big ask.
Tigertail still stands out in the mainstream as an American film that doesn't treat the story of an Asian man as something exotic or foreign. There is no unwarranted special treatment or the age-old stereotyping or tear-jerking, and for that, and for many more reasons, it deserves what Pin-Jui loses a lot of — Love.