Film Review – Tigertail
Tigertail (2020) – not to be confused with the docuseries Tiger King – is a Taiwanese film that explores the choice many people have made: leaving their home country and immigrating to the United States in search of a better life. As a child of immigrant parents (I myself was born in the Philippines and came here as a baby), this premise struck me on a personal level. I can’t speak for every person who chooses to come to this country, but I would assume that there are many similarities: the immediate culture shock, the difficulty of adjusting to a new environment, interacting with people who don’t look or talk like you, and realizing that the hope of prosperity isn’t as easy as advertised.
This transition is one of great adversity, where one has to be separated from their friends and family so that they can work and earn enough to support them. The focus on financial survival is so keyed in that it causes a person to make personal compromises. Hopes and dreams take a back seat to the necessity of putting food on the table. That’s the central element that writer/director Alan Yang hinges his narrative on. A writer/producer on such comedic television shows such as Parks and Recreation and Master of None, Yang takes a deeply serious and personal approach with his feature length debut, but he does so from a universal perspective. Even though this comes from a specific cultural standpoint, it would be impossible not to understand the central themes.
Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is an elderly man who is going through an existential crisis. He lives a relatively comfortable life at his age, with a nice condo and pretty flowers growing in his front lawn. But things aren’t as happy as they would seem. He went through a bitter divorce with his wife Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu), and the relationship with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko) is so strained that having lunch together is an awkward situation.
How did things turn out this way? Yang answers this question by flashing back to a young Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee), living in Taiwan and working in a factory with his mother, Minghua (Kuei-Mei Yang). The younger Pin-Jui is much different than the man he would grow up to be. Here he is vibrant, spontaneous, and full of life. He loves American music and movies, and dances whenever he can. He has a great love in Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), and their relationship is one of starry-eyed romance. One of the most tender scenes has the two of them having a late-night rendezvous and singing Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” But the harsh realities of the world come calling with the opportunity to move to the U.S. The only catch: Pin-Jui would have to enter an arranged marriage with the younger Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li).
From this point forward, Yang shows us the gradual chipping away of Pin-Jui’s personality. He goes from a free-spirited young man to a hardworking adult to the near statuesque person he now is. The sacrifices he’s made – leaving his mother, entering a loveless marriage, working long hours for little money – has made him fixated on financial security. He believes in being the best all the time. This idea allows us to understand his detached way of thinking. When a young Angela makes a slight mistake during her piano recital, Pin-Jui treats it as an egregious error. Pin-Jui is not a bad man, but his ability to open up to others has become stunted because of his experiences. It was the right choice to have two actors play the same character at different ages. The differences in look and delivery amplifies the personal transition that Pin-Jui goes through.
Wong Kar Wai is a major influence on Yang’s style. There’s the visual component, with Nigel Bluck’s cinematography often going into slow motion to add a heightened, almost dreamlike sense of reality. Color makes a strong presence, particularly red, to first magnify Pin-Jui’s inner passions and then to suppress them. Musical cues are repeated over and over. Wong Kar Wai is well known to repeat scores or songs as a way to pinpoint the psychological changes in his characters. Yang does the exact same thing. Zach Cowie’s score is repeated numerous times at different stages of Pin-Jui’s life. To a larger degree is “Tou Xin De Ren” by Yao Su Rong, an upbeat pop song emblematic of Pin-Jui’s youth. A vinyl record of the song makes an appearance, and what happens to it only seems fitting given what happens to Pin-Jui.
It seems like a tragedy that Tigertail is only a brief 91 minutes long. For a story that traces the near entirety of a character’s life, condensing it down to such a short time leaves out bits of information that could have been beneficial. We go from Taiwan to America in the blink of an eye – we get no sense of the trip that Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen had to make. We skip out on how Pin-Jui went from a run down, one room apartment to a nice condo and a flower bed. What was that progression like? At what point did he go from barely surviving to an established member of the middle class? In style and tone, this feels like it has the ingredients for a three-hour epic.
In an age where children of immigrants enjoy the luxuries of the internet, cell phones, Uber, YouTube, and social media, the thought of what it took to attain that way of life is often ignored. Tigertail is Alan Yang’s love letter to a past generation, one that gave up much of themselves so that their kids would never have to go through what they did. Sometimes we think our parents are aloof and simply don’t understand us. But have we ever thought about taking a step back and trying to understand them as well?