'Tigertail': Film Review

Tigertail - Publicity Still 1 - H 2020
A meager tale.

'Master of None' co-creator Alan Yang makes his feature directorial debut for Netflix with an immigration story loosely based on his father's life.

Crazy Rich Asians may have been named after (a tiny minority of) Asians in Asia, but it likely became so widely embraced by Asian Americans because it acknowledged us as a group distinct from our ethnic counterparts on the other side of the Pacific. Director Jon M. Chu certainly made a winsome romantic comedy, but the film's most powerful moment undoubtedly belonged to the mahjong-parlor scene, in which the protagonist's (Constance Wu) would-be mother-in-law (Michelle Yeoh) finally saw value in the younger woman's Asian Americanness.

It feels like something of a natural, if accidental, progression, then, that two subsequent Asian American films have complicated that celebratory mode. Last year's The Farewell, from writer-director Lulu Wang, and now Netflix's Tigertail, from writer-director Alan Yang, feel like an intellectual leveling up of mainstream Asian American discourse in their challenges to the prefabricated notion that immigration to the U.S., and the sacrifices therein, are always worth it in the end. The two films also happen to be stories based on each filmmaker's family and feature longtime character actor Tzi Ma in prominent paternal roles. (Ma also plays the titular heroine's father in the live-action Mulan remake, set for release in July.)

Like The Farewell, Tigertail certainly feels like a passion project. Alternating between Mandarin, Taiwanese and English, it boasts a handful of the kind of hyper-specific details likely pulled from real life, like the introduction of Mandarin to Taiwan via the Kuomintang, here enacted by a pair of bored Chinese soldiers against the protagonist's recalcitrant native Taiwanese grandmother. But Tigertail is also a lot of things The Farewell isn't: drowsy, shambolic, underthought. Its structure is so meager it's downright skeletal.

It's not just Yang's résumé — as the Emmy-winning co-creator of Master of None and Forever — that makes Tigertail such a disappointment, but the many promising elements within the somber but yearning drama itself. If The Farewell posited immigration as a chronic open wound, with Awkwafina's Billie thousands of miles away from her dying grandmother and unable to tell her the truth about her health, Tigertail, with its male protagonist's learned hardness, could've made for a worthy companion piece. Its premise, of a lonely older man (Ma) who became stoic to survive and now has trouble connecting with others, but particularly with his grown child, is both deeply Asian American and resoundingly universal.

Narrated by Yang's own father, Tigertail takes place mostly within the reminiscences of Pin-Jui (played by Ma in middle age, Hong-Chi Lee as a young man and Zhi-Hao Yang as a child). The opening scene establishes that Pin-Jui was briefly sent to live with his grandparents on their verdant farm by his struggling single mother — one of many biographical details of possible significance to Yang, but irrelevant to the development of the film's characters, themes and storylines. It's the first of countless such loose ends.

In his distractingly austere home — a character detail that feels more like a reflection of the production budget, as well as of the general neglect of visual interest — the divorced Pin-Jui struggles to reconnect with his adult daughter, Angela (Christine Ko, conspicuously flat), while recalling the love of his life, Yuan (played by Yo-Hsing Fang as a young woman and by Joan Chen as an older one), whom he left behind to pursue his dream of going to America.

Tigertail is most compelling in the scenes between Fang and the smolderingly charismatic Lee, as Yuan and Pin-Jui fall in love with American pop culture and each other. (An early scene in which the couple playfully sway to a 1960s Taiwanese pop ballad is a particular highlight, with its own spin on Wong Kar-wai films.) But Pin-Jui doesn't let himself take his relationship with Yuan seriously — he's got places to go, and, soon enough, another woman to marry.

Pin-Jui hopes to make enough money in America so his mother (a winsome Kuei-Mei Yang) can retire, but it's not entirely clear why else he wishes for such a drastic life change. And though his move to the U.S. is entirely dependent on his boss, whose daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) he weds as his ticket to New York, the dynamics of their marriage seem barely informed by that power dynamic. Not exactly an arranged marriage but not too far from it, Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen's relationship is full of unfamiliar-enough components that they scream for the elaboration they never get. Zhenzhen transforms from a painfully shy meekling to a confident and outspoken older woman who finally casts off the gilded cage of her marriage. Sounds like a fascinating journey. Too bad the film seems resolutely uninterested in developing any of its supporting characters.

But Tigertail truly flatlines when it comes to the father-daughter relationship between Pin-Jui and Angela. (So underwritten is she that we're told repeatedly she spends too much time at work, but she's never given an actual profession. And so spartan is the set design that, even with a numbingly repetitive number of scenes with her and her father doing the dishes in their respective homes, she's not allowed a dish rack.) Yang relies, over and over, on Ma's thousand-yard stare to conjure regret and sorrow. Ma's up to the challenge each time, but each reiteration reminds us that the filmmaker has given us too little to look at.

Cast: Tzi Ma, Hong-chi Lee, Christine Ko, Yo-Hsing Fang, Kunjue Li, Kuei-Mei Yang, Joan Chen
Screenwriter-director: Alan Yang
Producers: Charles King, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks, Alan Yang
Director of photography: Nigel Bluck
Production designer: Amy Williams
Editor: Daniel Haworth
Casting directors: Ally Conover, Sarah Domeier Lindo

Premieres Friday, April 10 (Netflix)