A Film a Week - Tigertail

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has, at least temporarily, disrupted the film distribution channels and shifted the focus from the usual ways (festivals, then theatrical releases in different territories) directly to internet. It works for now for the world-wide audiences since there is a list of films that already had their festival premieres earlier this year (or in the later stages of the last year) and the completed films to be released. For filmmakers, producers and production companies, the glass could be half-full (getting the widest possible, global releases) or half-empty (taking some not so good deals with streaming giants). How it looks like in the case of Alan Yang's directorial debut "Tigertail" that premiered earlier this month on Netflix?

As a writer and a producer, Yang comes from television background, best known for his credits on the series like "Parks and Recreation" and "Master of None", so, theoretically, he should not be bothered too much with the fact that his directorial debut got the small screen release. The trouble is, however, that some of the "movie magic" always gets lost in translation and some films work differently in different release contexts. That is the case with "Tigertail", a film that should have been seen on a large screen, preferably at a film festival, before hitting the internet. Simply put, television or laptop screen, pretty much robs it of visual flair that makes this earnest, well-acted but predictable family drama stand out.

Like recently reviewed Lulu Wang's last year's outing, "The Farewell", "Tigertail" is a semi-fictionalized (auto)biography in its core, dealing with the generational and lifestyle differences within the frame of a Taiwanese-American family. The central character of the film is Pin-Jui, played by Tzi Ma (who also had a supporting role in "The Farewell" and who is becoming a synonym for the role of the father in the Asian-American cinema), a working-class immigrant form Taiwan who made it in Bronx as a hard-working corner store owner, but who had to sacrifice everything for that kind of success. Pin-Jui is based on Yang's own father and his life in Taiwan and in New York.

Pin-Jui grows up with his grandmother, since his mother (Yang Kuei-Mei) left for the city in order to find work after his father's death. The times are hard: Taiwan is a military dictatorship, the army is hunting the dissidents and Mandarin is being imposed as the official language, discriminating the local majority of Taiwanese-speaking people. It is especially the case for Pin-Jui who basically has no chance of social mobility in life. Later on, Pin-Jui (played by Lee Hong-Chi as a young man) works alongside his mother in a sugar factory, lives with her in a small house and spends his time going out, listening to covers of American pop-rock hits, dating his childhood sweetheart Yuan (Fang Yo-Hsing) and dreaming about leaving for America with her.

Part of his dreams come true with the help of the factory owner who finances his trip across the ocean under the condition that Pin-Jui takes his daughter Zhenzhen (Li Kunjue) with him. The life in America is not anything like Pin-Jui dreamed of, so he has to work even harder if he wants to provide for himself and his family conceived in a loveless marriage. The end result is that he is estranged from his own daughter Angela (Christine Ko) and that he cannot offer her any emotional support in the times of her own personal hardships.

The plot jumps back and forth between the different timelines, with the periods of the late 60's Taiwan and early 70's New York being told as flashback of Pin-Jui memories. The protagonist is also introduced early on as a narrator, and Yang uses that device from time to time, creating the feeling of a screen adaptation of a proper memoir. That kind of narrative structure takes some time to set in, but once the viewer is adjusted to it, the events and the topics become predictable. Some of the solutions are a bit too abrupt (the divorce of Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen), and Pin-Jui's inability to communicate with Angela could have used more of an in-depth approach. On the other hand, Yang is not making the unnecessary audience-friendly compromises, as he does not go for the melodramatic clichés (although Yuan comes back to the screen, played by Joan Chen). The earnestness and the portrait of a life as it is remains one of the greater qualities of "Tigertail".

The other good thing Yang is especially good at is channelling the emotion through the gentle and fond memories. There are the traces of Wong Kar-Wai and Edward Yang in the portrait of the romance between Pin-Jui and Yuan and in choice he has to make between a chance of a better life and his true love. The feeling is highlighted with a use of analogue cinematography on 16mm stock by Nigel Bluck, where the warmth and the graininess blend together perfectly. However, the part of the mood gets lost when the film is watched on a small screen.

The actors do their best to bridge their sometimes under-developed characters. Luckily for the principal star of the film, this is not the case for his character, so Tzi Ma's acting is on the money all the way through. The biggest casting challenge, however, was to assign at least two actors to play the same character in different periods of time and life stages, and to make the transformation as smooth as possible, which Alan Yang does in the best possible way. That is apparent especially in the case of the protagonist, where the youthful optimism channelled by Lee Hong-Chi (famous for the role of Wildcat in Gan Bi's "Long Day's Journey into the Night") slowly and compellingly transforms to resignation that is key to the character in the later stage in life.

Overall, "Tigertail" is a good film, especially judged as a debut feature. Alan Yang certainly had a clear vision and the discipline to follow it through. The film could benefit of a bit longer runtime and a better development of the supporting characters (who are usually relegated to a couple of traits), while it is also expected for a film about the immigration to be more generous on the social context. Then again. it would be a different film. This way, focused on a toll that dreams of a better life take on the inner living of a person, "Tigertail" is both brutally honest and universal, which is a merit on its own.

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