Movie Review – Tigertail
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Alan Yang was an actor-writer-producer on the series Parks and Recreation (2009). He became notable in 2016, gaining some fame when he won an Emmy Award for writing Master of None. He specifically won for writing an episode titled “Parents.” That episode was about two Asian immigrants, one from Taiwan and one from India, who come to the United States to make a better life for themselves and their children. However, things don’t quite work out as they think and their children end up not appreciating any of the things their parents have done, taking their American lives for granted. It’s structured with the parents looking back at their lives in their native countries and the journey they had getting to the U.S. This film basically takes that same structure and stretches it out to feature length. Instead of being a more comedic take, focusing on their children’s ignorance, apathy or self-regard, it’s more a dramatic take, focusing on their parent’s struggle and sacrifice.
Tzi Ma (The Farewell and Arrival) stars as Pin-Jui, a man from Taiwan who immigrated to New York City, probably in the 70’s or early 80’s with his wife. They didn’t have a lot of money when they got there. They lived in a nasty apartment. He had to work while his wife had nothing to do. After having two children who are now adults, Pin-Jui is retired as an old man and is reflecting upon his life, how he got to where he is now and why. What spurs his reflection is the death of his mother. His daughter specifically wants to know about her grandmother in order to connect more with her dad. Him not talking and sharing much with her is a complaint and indeed the conceit of that Master of None episode. Pin-Jui is therefore a stoic and reserved person.
Christine Ko (Hawaii Five-0 and The Great Indoors) co-stars as Angela, the daughter to Pin-Jui. She can speak Mandarin but she also speaks perfect English and feels completely American. It seems though that she doesn’t have any connection to her father’s country. She also seems like she doesn’t have much of a connection to her father who has been stern and distant as a parent. One of the issues in that Master of None episode is that the Taiwanese parent never told his child that he was proud of anything that his child has done. In a scene where we see Angela at a piano recital, we get the sense that a similar dynamic exists between Angela and her dad.
However, in flashbacks to Pin-Jui’s life as a boy and as a teen in Taiwan, it’s clear and understandable why he is the way that he is or why he parents Angela the way that he does. The opening sequence of this film involves Pin-Jui living as a little boy in Taiwan in what seems like post-World War II, so late 40’s or early 50’s. There is a reference to the Kuomintang, which was a Chinese military force in Taiwan. The film doesn’t explain Taiwanese history, but Taiwan, which was under the control of Japan, was put under Chinese control after WWII. China put Taiwan under a military occupation and imposed martial law. The rule of the Kuomintang after WWII is commonly referred to as the “White Terror.” This is because the Kuomintang rule was kicked off with a massacre that resulted in many many deaths. When Pin-Jui was a little boy, he had to live in the fear that came from this Chinese force, which informed how he behaved in order to survive. He then passed how he was raised to his daughter, which clearly didn’t work because America wasn’t being occupied by military forces. Yet, it also explains other choices he makes.
Hong-Chi Lee co-stars as young Pin-Jui. We see him leave occupied Taiwan for the U.S. and have to try to make a life there, building himself up from poverty. We spend more time with young Pin-Jui than we do with Angela, which is the counterbalance of the Master of None episode, which spent more time with the child of the immigrant than the immigrant himself. He’s also driven by a desire to earn enough money to bring his mother to America. He becomes so focused on that, which causes him not to consider much else. What doesn’t help is that his heart isn’t into his domestic life.
Kunjue Li plays Zhenzhen, the wife of Pin-Jui. She’s the daughter of a factory owner, the factory where Pin-Jui and his mother worked in Taiwan. When her father learns that Pin-Jui wants to go to America, he arranges for Zhenzhen to marry Pin-Jui. It’s not a marriage for love but for convenience. Seeing how things develop, one feels as though Pin-Jui lived most of his life unhappy, merely doing what he thought he needed to do. There is a suggestion that he had joy but that it wasn’t with Zhenzhen and the children that came from her.
As such, this film could be about romantic regret. The way that it ends, it’s less about that and trying to get at what that Master of None episode got at, which is linking first-generation immigrants to their roots. How those roots can be lost are simple, but maintaining a connection to them is important. That link of course has to be maintained through one’s children. It’s not to say that his choice to come to America was wrong. It’s just that the trauma he experienced young informed some decisions and behavior that led to an unfulfilled life, but Yang’s ending feels somewhat hopeful.
Right at the end, there is a reveal of what the word “Tigertail” means or where it came from. The reveal almost had the same effect as the ending of Lion (2016), which is another immigrant story. It’s far different, but I wasn’t moved emotionally by the ending here as I was in Lion. This film had the potential and Yang seemed like he wanted to wallop the audience emotionally, but like Tzi Ma’s performance, the film results in a kind of stoic and reserved emotion from the viewer as well.
Rated PG for language, smoking and brief sensuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.
Available on Netflix.