Unlike its present-day protagonist, Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), Tigertail has a lot to say. About the lives that immigrant parents and grandparents leave behind, for their own sake and their children’s. About the consequences of turning our backs on the past and letting go of the lives we almost led. And about the strain placed on intergenerational relationships when we blame others for our own sacrifices. No, Tigertail has no shortage of ideas. And while it doesn’t completely stick the landing, writer-director Alan Yang’s feature debut deftly combines sprawling structural ambition with a rhythmic intimacy to produce a unique but universal portrait of one man’s immigrant experience.
Though intergenerational in scope,Tigertail is unquestionably Pin-Jui's story (portrayed in his youth by Hong-Chi Lee). Piecing together his exuberant adolescence in Taiwan, his struggle upon arriving in America, and the broken relationships of his latter years, Yang weaves in and out of several timelines, held together only by the parallel struggles of their main character. It’s an effective gambit; the juxtaposition emphasizes the extent to which Pin-Jui has changed, and how much he keeps from his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko), in an attempt to avoid the pain of the life he gave up.
Yang displays the same talent for imbuing his scenes with an undeniable poignance that elevated his television work, particularly Master of None. Early scenes of Pin-Jui’s youthful romance with the much wealthier Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fan) feel lyrical and fleeting, just out of both our and Pin-Jui’s grasp, as he hurtles head-first down a path he subconsciously knows is a dead-end. But family comes first; Pin-Jui accepts his boss’s offer to marry his daughter in exchange for a paid relocation to America, where the newlywed hopes to earn enough money to send for his mother, keeping her from living out the rest of her days at a factory. Of course, in Pin-Jui’s eyes, his new bride Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li, and later, Fiona Fu) is a symbol of his sacrifice, paling in comparison to Yuan.
As Pin-Jui emerges into adulthood, the score shifts from the romantic strings of Taiwan to a monotonous piano, reflecting his head-first crash into reality. This sequence is the film’s longest without a flashback and its crucial centerpiece, evocative of The Godfather Part II’s depiction of Vito’s early days in New York City. It provides the connective tissue between the flashes of Pin-Jui’s lack of inhibition and his older self’s austerity that Yang juxtaposed until that point. With a wife he doesn’t love, a job he doesn’t like, and a mother who doesn’t want to join him, Pin-Jui blames his sacrifices on those around him.
Yang brilliantly uses visual transitions to draw connections between Pin-Jui's past and his present, and particularly to trace lines between him and his daughter, Angela. Upon arriving in America, Pin-Jui rids himself of every connection to the past - even failing to share his home country with his children. But escaping the pain of what-ifs only isolates him, and as shown by a particularly painful transition from father to daughter, each eating dinner alone, this isolation spreads across generations.
As it explores this connection,Tigertail stumbles with a few over-explained “message” scenes toward the end, not doing Christine Ko any favors with overly on-the-nose dialogue. The neat wrap-up betrays the subtlety that comes before - the film is stronger when it shows us their lives and lets us find meaning, weaker when it tries to explain that meaning. But it lands gracefully in the end, with a final shot that packs a lifetime of meaning in an ounce of visual flair.
Tigertail is full of moments I will remember: Pin-Jui and Yuan singing Otis Redding; dancing and dreaming of Faye Dunaway; Angela dressed like a younger version of her father as she explores his childhood. It’s a clarion call for accepting our pasts and sharing our histories with our children, even when it’s a little bit painful.