Watch Tigertail on Netflix: Far from what you would expect from Alan Yang, given his resume is decorated with likes of comedy-drama ‘Master of None’ & satirical sitcom ‘Parks and Recreation’, “Tigertail” is a poignant, often melancholic, low-key drama about dreams, relationships and existential crisis, all painstakingly boxed within 90 minutes. Yang sagaciously draws a fabric from his father’s immigration experience to America to paint such intricate detailing and render palpability to the conventional drama. He then romantically spins into a semi-fictional story about an immigrant’s desire to achieve “the American dream.” He doesn’t merely borrow the story but imbibes the experiences and socio-cultural differences to chalk out the characters and their bittersweet relationships. He crafts an intimate, deeply felt drama having an evocative narrative that feels unadulterated and honest.
Yang opens ‘Tigertail’ in the vast field of a small village in 1950s Taiwan. It has a hint of melancholia. We see Pin-Jui/Grover (played by Hong-Chi Lee as a young man and played by Tzi Ma as an older self) running through the mid-field howling for his dead father and mother who lives away from him. He grows up to become a high-spirited factory worker. He is cheerful, full of dreams. He dances with his wealthier, free-spirited childhood sweetheart- Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang) – in a bar, runs away from a restaurant without paying the bill and sings Otis Redding by the water.
Hong-Chi Lee brings the fervour and energy to the character effortlessly. It’s his sincerity in the performance that elevates such conventional character and his relationship with mother and Yuan.
The visuals & aesthetics of their romance and inherent silence are reminiscent of Wong-Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love.’ Yang has been vocal about his inspiration and influence of Wong-Kar, and it is discernible in the sequences these young lovers share.
The growing financial disparity puts a toll on his working mother, and that compels Pin-Jui to make a choice which would change his life for better or worse. He gives precedence to his responsibility and childhood dream over a young beating heart. The choice comes with a baggage of marriage with Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), a person he barely knows and had disaster first date.
Years later, in the present-day, older Pin-Jui, who goes by the name of Grover, looks staring in the face of existential crisis. He is stubborn but emotionally kaput. When his estranged daughter opens up about his terrible break-up at a lunch meet, he is hardly concerned. His lack of empathy towards his daughter’s vulnerability and emotional fragility not only reveals his incompetence to understand his daughter but also shows how much he has changed with time. Once bright & sanguine youngster turned so cold and distant.
Yang doesn’t leave us with a riddle as to why such a radical change in Pin-Jui. He takes us back to ’70-era New York to peek into his new married life. His exuberance melts away when modern-day slavery binds him to a dead-end job. As he realises the bitter truth about the American dream, life’s disappointment hit him hard, and his vigour and passion wither-off. It swiftly changes him as a person. He turns brutish, bitter and silent sufferer that storms his marriage. It brings him to the knees. His mundane quotidian life chews him up slowly from inside out.
Yang’s screenplay alternate between past and present, a conventional trope to draw the contrast between two different eras and people living in them. However, Yang employees it for present-day Pin-Jui to introspect his life and question the character’s ineptitude to have a healthy relationship. He doesn’t succumb to melodramatic & explicit revelations to make Pin-Jui discern his follies, but rather he lets his audience reflect in their lives.
Yang deploys subplot of Pin-Jui’s grown daughter Angela’s (Christine Ko) to show the loss of insouciances & passivity in his state of living, but it feels too measured and calculated to the point of contrivances and underwritten. Yang conveniently hooks the emotional tsunami in the life of Angela on her marital trouble which hardly makes you empathetic for her. Credits to Christine Ko’s matured performance to make us eventually care for her character despite the issues.
The next thing that bothered me about the film was Pin-Jui’s brief meeting with Yuan (Joan Chen) where he seeks closure to their relationship. For such a complex character whose misery has compounded over several decades, it seems an easier passage to console him. This propels him to recoup from the relentless desolation and finds a way to mend her relationship with Angela and make peace with his regrets. Though the third act follows a predictable arc for the primary characters, Yang’s restrained writing & Tzi Ma’s internalised & understated performance keep you invested in “Tigertail.”
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