A Taiwanese factory worker (Hong-Chi Lee) with lofty aspirations leaves his homeland – and the love of his life – for New York and a new life. However, he struggles to balance his job and connecting with his wife. As the years go by, he becomes a shell of himself, full of regret and unable to speak to his daughter as she struggles with her own crisis.
Alan Yang is not likely a familiar name in the world of film. The Taiwanese-American writer and director made his name on TV comedies such as Parks and Recreation and Master of None with insightful storytelling about immigrants and assimilation, and being true to yourself. While normally used to skewer social stereotypes or simply played up for a laugh, these themes are loud, and far weightier, in semi-biographical drama Tigertail.
Based loosely on his dad’s own relocation to the United States, Yang highlights the immigrant experience as one built on the future’s promise rather than the joys of the present. This is likely a concept very familiar to tens of thousands worldwide, not least the United States. But hard work comes with a price – for some it’s nationality, for others their family’s happiness. Tigertail sees our protagonist Grover’s identity stripped entirely while he chases the American dream.
The first third of the story, chronicling Grover’s early life in Taiwan and meeting lover Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang) is sweet and beautifully shot. It impeccably connected me to younger life when things seemed simpler and more dynamic, a feeling I don’t doubt other viewers will experience too. However, as the story switches between the present, the past and their connecting events, the plot blurs a little. Character motivations become murky despite the overall tinge of loss being magnificently maintained. This translates to slower momentum around the middle of Tigertail as characters go undeveloped and life events are brushed over in broad strokes. A longer run-time – the film is a very tight 91 minutes – could have really helped to deepen our appreciation for Grover’s gradual loss of self.
This confused characterisation leads to some non-descript acting. Christine Ko, as Grover’s adult daughter Angela, is impenetrable to read and unfortunately passive. Events seem to just happen to her; not like they do to Grover, swallowed in his own emotional inertia, but as they do to a character in a confused arc. Tzi Ma, on the other hand, does an excellent job as the present-day Grover. Ma’s performance is remarkably restrained considering the film’s emotive power rests on him. However, this perfectly embodies his character’s emotional isolation and adds significant weight to Tigertail.
Yang’s lack of experience behind the camera is also evident. The opening sequence is exquisitely shot but also familiar, perhaps replicating Terence Malik’s style a little too closely in the name of adding an auteur’s stamp to his directing. The film is also rife with shots typical of ‘arthouse’ – lingering close ups meant to convey emotion simply add silence to a story already filled with pregnant pauses. The bones of Yang’s skillset is still there though, and make no mistake that Tigertail is a very strong debut.
The film is ultimately a couple of tweaks away from being a classic. Earnest and full of emotional weight, Tigertail may not be light comfort viewing for desperate times, but it does have a lot to say about how to live a life without regret.
Tigertail is a heartfelt reflection on life misspent. Characterisation thins out in parts, but the film still packs an emotional punch. 6.5/10.