What you need to know
Alan Yang's feature debut explores a slew of important themes but fails to tell a coherent story.
Best known for his comedy writing, Taiwanese American director Alan Yang tells a much more personal story in his debut feature Tigertail, now streaming on Netflix.
In just over 90 minutes, Yang portrays a loosely autobiographical family story spanning three generations, two countries, and three languages (Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English). He tries to tell too much within too little space, amounting to a film we can only savor in parts.
Tigertail, a story based on Yang’s father, revolves around Pin-jui’s pursuit of the American dream as a Taiwanese immigrant and his regrets in old age.
The narration opening the film, voiceover from Yang’s real father, is the only thread connecting the scattered plot. Pin-jui as a young boy running through expansive rice fields in rural Taiwan promises a visually stunning journey, but we are quickly burdened with the constraints the characters face.
It was on that lush rice field where Pin-jui met Yuan, whom he falls in love with as a young adult (Lee Hong-chi). The stoic voiceover contrasts with Pin-jui’s energy as a young man: He loves dancing and has reckless impulses like ducking out of a pricey restaurant without paying. But his romance with Yuan (Fang Yo-hsing) ends with his decision to marry the factory owner’s daughter, Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), for a ticket to New York.
Present-day Pin-jui, played by “Hollywood’s go-to Asian dad” Tzi Ma, is as rigid as a stereotypical Asian dad can be. Ground down by the repetitive daily opening and closing of the deli store, Pin-jui is divorced and struggles to maintain a strained relationship with his daughter Angela (Catherine Ko). The father-daughter dynamic screams awkwardness, emphasized by their silences and on-screen distance.
While the first half of Tigertail introduces fragments of history specific to Taiwan, including mentions of the Kuomintang’s occupation and the forced language transition from Taiwanese to Mandarin, the larger story weaved between the flashbacks is one that would resonate with most East Asian immigrant families. Angela’s failed piano recital, a partner deemed unqualified by her father, and her crying out loud for unconditional love from the same emotionally-challenged parent — these are yet again tired tropes of second-generation Asian American struggles, all rehashed from Amy Tan novels. Nonetheless, they do suggest something about what the “model minority” life entails.
Barely speaking any Taiwanese and Mandarin, Yang’s limited language capacity is not an excuse for the barren script because the English-speaking portion is all the more unremarkable. Fans of Yang’s sitcoms may find the dull conversations a departure from his usual wit. Unnatural dialogue and dragged-out pauses, topped with inconsistent accents, snap us out of the visual experience that was so carefully crafted.
Yang falls short in small details that would make the film whole. A few characters shift their accent from Taiwanese to Chinese, an inconsistency apparent to people who speak the languages. Angela, the daughter, hosts a Lunar (or Chinese) New Year party that should normally be a family feast hosted by parents or married couples, bearing no resemblance to what the traditional holiday means. These missteps leave us wondering why Yang neglected the important cultural nuances.
Tigertail at times echoes Edward Yang’s static frames and Wong Kar-wai’s saturated color palettes. Yet the traces of influence are almost too obvious and the camera too perceptible that Yang comes off as an amateur handing in his first assignment by copying great artists, with little of his own vision.
The efforts to emulate the masters do not cover up the thin plot. Pin-jui and Angela come to a resolution at the end, but the various relationships never reach the necessary emotional depth for us to fully sympathize. Pin-jui’s regretful first love, his inability to fulfill filial piety, a failed marriage, and a daughter who feels abandoned — none of it was given enough detail for us to care. Tigertail is full of romantic ideas but incomplete.
With the increasing but still insufficient Asian American presence in cinema, there’s great pressure for filmmakers in Yang's position to hit every mark. Only with more cultural production by and about Asian Americans will these filmmakers be relieved of their duty to represent.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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