Tigertail is Alan Yang’s first time as a feature director (Sarah Shatz/Netflix via AP)
Tigertail is Alan Yang’s first time as a feature director (Sarah Shatz/Netflix via AP)

REVIEW: Double-edged sword in new Netflix movie

Netflix movie Tigertail is clearly a labour of love.

Written and directed by Asian-American filmmaker Alan Yang (Master of None, Parks & Recreation), this deeply personal film was inspired by his father's experiences immigrating to the US from Taiwan.

It's a quiet, tender film that operates on different emotional levels with its universally resonant story about regret and "the one that got away".

Visually beautiful and emotionally authentic, Tigertail is a love story, an immigrant story and a family story.

It's also about how hard experiences shape not just our lives, but those that come after us. Regret and emotional distance can be a generational burden.

Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is a divorced, older man who has a strained relationship with his adult daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Over dinner, their exchanges are perfunctory and impersonal.

A taciturn fellow with sad eyes, it's revealed through flashbacks how Pin-Jun morphed from a carefree, risk-taking dreamer in his youth to this closed, almost cold man.

 

Tzi Ma and Christine Ko in the present day sequences in Tigertail (Sarah Shatz/Netflix via AP)
Tzi Ma and Christine Ko in the present day sequences in Tigertail (Sarah Shatz/Netflix via AP)

 

As a young man in Taiwan, Pin-Jui (Hong Chi-Lee) loved to dance, especially with Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), the woman with whom he has a heady romance.

Pin-Jui wants to move to America, seduced by the promise of a better life glimpsed through pop culture and music, so he reluctantly agrees to marry the daughter of his factory boss, on the proviso that his in-laws ponies up the money for the journey.

In a new country with no friends or family, married to a virtual stranger, Pin-Jui's heart starts to harden, as if life has knocked the joy out of him.

Tigertail is a love letter from Yang to his father, a man whose personal history Yang admits he didn't always know, in the same way so many of us don't know what our parents have been through.

To know is to accept them as fully formed humans, rather than as extensions of ourselves and how they fit into our lives. That complex relationship between parent and child is something everyone can relate to, whether their parents were immigrants or not.

It's a gracious film, crafted with love but not blinders, as Pin-Jui, the stand-in for Yang's father, is revealed be a flawed person, weighed down as he is by the choices he made, and the choices he didn't make.

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Tigertail is a story of lost love and regret
Tigertail is a story of lost love and regret

 

There's a lot of wonderful detail in the character of Pin-Jui from his Lee brand dad jeans to how the closed body language exhibited by Ma, an actor who played a different kind of father figure in Lulu Wang's The Farewell the previous year.

But the other characters - Angela, Yuan and Zhenzhen (Pin-Jui's wife) - are given short shrift, and you never get the same grasp of who they are as you do Pin-Jui.

Yang is a talented filmmaker whose writing has always evidenced a deep, sophisticated understanding of the sometimes-contradictory nature of human emotions, whether that be his Emmy-winning work on Master of None or the underappreciated Amazon miniseries Forever.

Tigertail is his first feature as director and he has displayed a confident hand in how he crafts each scene.

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Tigertail’s early scenes in Taiwan are particularly beautiful
Tigertail’s early scenes in Taiwan are particularly beautiful

 

The early sequences in Taiwan are particularly visually beautiful. They're also more dynamic and certain in their purpose. Once the flashbacks (or memories) are transported to the US, it becomes patchier.

While it's effective in highlighting some of the challenges of new immigrants, it's less effective in the emotional stakes.

There's something disconnected in Tigertail's overall composition, as if it's a few pieces short of a whole.

Tigertail is a film that would've played better at a film festival among audiences more open to an experience that can be flitting. Its emotional pull is perhaps not strong or engrossing enough for an at-home streaming audience too easily distracted by, well, everything.

The ephemerality of Tigertail is a double-edged sword, giving it both a wistfulness that underscores Pin-Jui's sadness, but also robbing the film of a more substantial grounding, as if it's not quite there.

Rating: 3/5

Tigertail is streaming now on Netflix

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Originally published as Double-edged sword in new Netflix movie


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