‘Tigertail’ movie review: A moving immigrant drama from Netflix, featuring a stand-out Tzi Ma

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A few minutes into Tigertail, we are shown a young boy running freely in a lush green field, and that sets the tone for what is a melancholic and touching tale. Drawing inspiration from director Alan Yang’s (known for hit series such as Parks and Recreation and Master of None) personal life, his debut feature follows the story of a young Taiwanese immigrant’s journey in America and forging new bonds with his estranged daughter.

Early on, a young Pin Jui (Hong-Chi Lee), living alone with his grandmother on a farm, is taught to hold back emotions. Pining for his widowed mom working in the city, he is chided by the grandmother. “Be strong. Don’t ever let anyone see you cry,” she says. Little does she know this lesson will go a long, painful way in shaping her grandson’s entire life.

What I like most about Tigertail, is how it beautifully segues between the past and the present. Scenes from Pin Jui’s early days — his love affair with the moneyed Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), his dreams to move to the US, and the relationship with his mother — have been beautifully captured. Alongside, he never loses touch of his practical side, such as what is expected of him as a good son. Like he admits later: he never cheated on his wife, and worked to provide for her; so she has no reason to be unhappy.

The pragmatic thinker he was raised to be, Pin Jui chooses to marry his employer’s daughter and settle in America. The stark contrast between the two Pin Jui’s — the Taiwanese and the American — is rather gloomy. The same young man who runs out from a restaurant without paying, sits with his new wife at an American restaurant he cannot afford and admits it is beyond his means. They silently eat their first meal in a new city at a diner.

Tigertail

  • Director: Alan Yang
  • Cast: Tzi Ma, Christine Ko, Hayden Szeto, Lee Hong-chi
  • Plot: A Taiwanese man goes through the American immigrant experience, while mourning the loss of his mother and struggling to build a bond with his estranged daughter

A rather loveless marriage ensues, as does a monotonous life; something Yang has intentionally portrayed more than once in the film. Be it the scenes of him doing the daily drill at the supermarket (he once worked at and then owned), or ones of his later life (essayed by the brilliant Tzi Ma) he spends gardening and cooking, the drudgery of everyday life is apparent. Something most people struggle with in a new city, more so the immigrants.

While the flashbacks set the tone for a young love story, the present ties it all together. At every stage of his life, Pin Jui has had a matter-of-fact approach to situations and feelings alike. At times, his emotionally stoic nature is rather irksome, and you feel like shaking him to get a few words out. His struggles connecting with his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko), equally distant emotionally, are echoed throughout the film. Why did he not inform Angela about his mother’s passing? “What good would it have done?” he asks, adding that her job keeps her busy and she never visited her grandmother anyway.

Both feel they are different from each other, but in reality, they couldn’t be more similar. Both hold back emotions, yearn for a sense of belonging and struggle to bridge the gap. What Pin Jui’s mother thought of him — a young, naive individual — he reflects onto his daughter. He doesn’t trust the boy she chooses to be with, and holds back from parting advice or a shoulder to cry on when she is vulnerable.

But there are several things I would have loved to see Yang explore. His daughter’s profession, for instance. It is spoken of a lot, but no indication of what she does. His relationship with the wife isn’t explored much either, and nothing about his memories of the children, their growing years. Why has he been so distant after all?

Nevertheless, Tzi Ma makes Tigertail a compelling watch. An emotionally distant man mourning his mother’s death, trying to get to know his daughter. And perhaps questioning his decision of leaving home in the first place. The movie ends on a rather touching note; an old Pin Jui finally opening up to his daughter, but not like his grandmother had taught him.

Tigertail is currently streaming on Netflix

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