Directed by Alan Yang
Starring Tzi Ma, Christine Ko, Hong-Chi Lee
Fans of Master of None, the dramedy co-created by Alan Yang with Aziz Ansari, might be startled to find that there is nothing remotely funny about this earnest, intimate drama tracing the journey of a man embarking on an arranged marriage in ‘60s-era Taiwan that will take him out of the little village of the title and all the way to America. It’s the story of youthful dreams dashed bit by heartbreaking bit by the harsh reality checks of life.
In that respect, it’s like a male-oriented riff on Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club…except, unlike that seminal Hollywood telling of the Asian immigrant experience, Tigertail seems to be missing half of the equation.
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Tigertail begins in the rice fields of Taiwan, where the protagonist Pin-Jui explains (in narration voiced by Yang’s real-life father) that he was left by his mother with his grandparents after the death of his father. The island was then occupied by the Kuomintang, even though the dangers posed by the militia seem to have been inserted only for period detail and really have no bearing on the rest of the story. Little Pin-Jui (Zhi-Hao Yang) makes a friend in pretty Yuan (Hai-Yin Tsai), and the two are soon reunited as young lovers in Taipei, where Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) works as a sugar factory worker beside his mother (Kuei-Mei Yang). But in his drive to get his mom away from dangerous machine work, Pin-Jui will forsake his true love (Yo-Hsiang Fang) and agree to marry the daughter of his boss, Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), so he can get the funds for a new start in New York.
This is all seen in flashback from the viewpoint of the elderly Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), who is now divorced from Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu) and is struggling to connect with his daughter Angela (Christina Ko), a successful career woman whose work is never explained. The present-day Pin-Jui is an emotionally remote, withholding man, but even in a restrained performance, you can discern Tzi Ma’s obvious relish at being given a meaty, multidimensional lead role.
That restraint applies to many aspects of this film, as well. The flashbacks set in ‘60s Taipei are filmed in the grainy atmospherics of a Wong Kar-Wai romance—a Netflix version of In the Mood for Love—while Michael Brooks’ string-laden score underlines the yearning and ache of a thwarted love that reverberates throughout a life. Yang eschews every effort to make this passion project commercial, opting to keep most of the dialogue in Mandarin and keeping the one love scene in the entire movie chaste. It is obvious that the writer-director wanted to treat this story with all the respect he could muster.
But there is a gaping hole in Tigertail, and it can be found in Christine Ko’s Angela, whose travails as the child of immigrants is severely underwritten. It’s a strange oversight, given that Angela’s character would have been the one Yang could relate to the most. As mentioned earlier, we aren’t really clued in to what she does, only that Pin-Jui lobs the occasional, passive-aggressive criticism that she is “always busy at work.” There is an offhand reference to a failed romance with a man named Eric (Hayden Szeto) that feels shoehorned into the plot, rather than an integral part of it.
And when Yang, in the final act, has an opportunity to get into the specifics of how Pin-Jui’s sacrifice is most keenly felt by the generation that followed him, the auteur instead pivots back to his protagonist’s story for a meticulously shot climax that once again showcases Tzi Ma’s beautifully modulated performance.
You may fault Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club as being a tad Hollywoodized and melodramatic, but at least it painted a fuller picture of the Asian immigrant experience, seen from the viewpoints of the parents who made the journey and the children who must now seek their place in two cultures that both treat them as foreign. Much like its remote protagonist, Tigertail leaves too much unspoken.
Tigertail is currently streaming on Netflix.
Photographs from Netflix