RIDING ON THE TIGERTAIL
Alan Yang wants you to call your dad. An honest review on "TIGERTAIL" by Netflix.
Feature photo courtesy of @netflixfilm
Alan Yang’s Tigertail is a bona fide love story. It’s a hackneyed sentiment, I know, but the truth is that few relationships hold a candle to the one that has survived moves across oceans,culture clashes, and third-culture angst.
Yang wrote, directed and produced Tigertail as an homage to his parents’ immigration story. (In fact, Yang’s own father provides the voiceover of the movie’s intro and outro, bookending a tale that mirrors his own.) If you’ve had the pleasure of watching Alan Yang’s work on Master of None, you may have seen Yang’s previous tribute for his father’s American dream. The critically acclaimed episode ‘Parents,’ portrays similar sentiments in a comedic light.
Tigertail encapsulates the reality of chasing the American dream in all of its misguided glory and excruciating, sobering reality. You’re rooting for them to succeed against all odds. Even though we may not all find ourselves in the same position as Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma), we can still see ourselves and the people we know in the relationships he has. Whether it’s his relationship with his mother, who encourages him in chasing his American dream but opposes joining him in America, unwilling to become a burden; or the woman he loves but couldn’t be with; or the woman he marries in an arranged marriage; or his daughter he worries has grown up to be just like him.
Tigertail opens with the titular village in central Taiwan, taking place after the Chinese civil war, during the Kuomintang occupation. The circumstances Pin-Jui faced were tough: he worked in the same factory with his mother, dealing with the brutal conditions side-by-side; they slept in the same room, their beds just meters apart from each other. But Pin-Jui didn’t want to be poor forever, a fate that seemed absolute should he continue to be a factory worker. He wanted a shot at being someone.
The film shifts between Pin-Jui’s past and present day. Pin-Jui spends his whole life fighting for a chance. In his youth, he tells everyone about his American dream, how it is the land of opportunities, how it will be like what he saw in movies, and how it will be his golden ticket out.
While the older Pin-Jui wonders why his daughter Angela (played by Christine Ko) refuses to open up to him, he looks back at the times when he behaved the same way, how his own unwillingness to communicate inextricably breeds his own unhappiness and regrets.
From a young age, those of us in East Asian communities are taught to keep our personal problems concealed. Emotional management is akin to an imperative for self-destruction; “crying doesn’t solve anything” reinforces the idea that our feelings are secondary to our productivity. We are discouraged from baring our pain and instructed to resolve them quietly. And if they couldn’t be fixed on our own, then, well, perhaps we should pretend they didn’t exist.
Even as a child, I felt like many of my problems were dismissed and often brushed off with a “someone else has it worse than you” -- a horrible precedent for lifelong comparison. Although context is always important, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to dismiss a child’s feelings. I was never taught how to untangle my own problems, but instead given a masterclass in how to pretend they didn’t exist. I developed a thick skin rather than a resilient heart, choosing methods that would make my pain less visible rather than repaired. When I finally talked about this, my parents were surprised that these little moments in my childhood could so dramatically affect my adult emotions. In truth, I saw myself when I saw Angela clinging onto seemingly insignificant moments of her childhood, using these to explain that how we are raised has everything to do with what we become.
The things that disappoint us -- a doll’s lost shoe, a parent’s harsh rebuke, a stumbled piano recital -- change over time. As we get older, though, these become problems with lasting consequences: divorce, financial instability, death and bereavement. But our habitual responses to these - silent suffering, avoidance -- is no longer appropriate. And our emotional responses, atrophied over time, are suddenly starkly insufficient.
I cannot overstate how freeing it is to see all of this captured in film.
Some have criticized Tigertail’s ambition, deeming it underthought and underdeveloped. However, I took its minimalism as Yang’s artistic vision by leaving it for the audience’s interpretation. By not dwelling into details, the characters become mirrors, reflecting on the audience’s own experiences.
I love Tigertail even more for its familiarity. I have never heard Hokkien spoken in a film outside of Taiwan before, and it invoked childhood memories that I had long forgotten, all of the summers I spent at my grandmother’s house, struggling to converse with her in a mixture of Mandarin and Hokkien (neither of which I was good at).
Watching Tigertail, I resonated with not only Angela, but the actress playing her, Christine Ko. Christine Ko hails from a prominent family in Taiwan; her late father, Frankie Kao was an influential figure in the entertainment industry, an amphibian across acting, singing, and hosting. Even though Ko could’ve easily used her father’s connections to build a career for herself, something her brother had done to establish himself as an actor and singer, she chose not to. While she struggled with making auditions between babysitting and waitressing gigs, she succeeded in her own hard work and dedication.
In Tigertail, we see intimate moments of Angela’s youth that come to define her relationship with her father. After a mishap in her piano performance, she weeps out of humiliation and frustration. Pui-Jui is stern and dismisses her crying as useless, rather than counseling her about her feelings or comforting her. The unspoken implication is jarring: that his love is conditional, demanding, fragile. Angela, in turn, struggles to counteract this insecurity her entire life.
Tzi Ma’s Pui-Jui also reminded me of a lot of my own father.
I’ve always felt like I had the perfect father. Even though he was also occupied with work, he made a conscious effort to maintain a good relationship with my brother and me. He showed us his favorite movies, brought us to baseball games, and supported our aspirations in any ways he could.
Nonetheless, I don’t think I could’ve candidly said the two of us were close; we never talked about our feelings, this was more up my mother’s alley. Most of the stories I’ve heard from my father were allegorical life lessons, even the ones drawn from his own experiences were picture-perfect lessons where he made a mistake and learned to never make it again. Even though he was never the stereotypical tiger parent that intimidated me into success, growing up, I looked up to him a lot and believed in the paradigm of using hard work to conceal any weakness I had. He believes in it, why shouldn’t I? My father came from very little and built a life for himself that I couldn’t even imagine replicating; if this was the mindset he held, then it must’ve worked.
The retrospective formula works: from hardship, we can create immeasurable success, and maybe even happiness. But if we don’t talk about the emotional toll, we deny ourselves a complete understanding of the narrative. The balance sheet is full of holes: we have arrived, yes, but why is there so much still missing?
The immigrant narrative is so full of sacrifice. I hope these lead us towards acts of redemption and reconciliation, rather than the assumption that suffering is normal because we have seen it modeled by the people we love.
Call your dad, and hear his story before it’s too late.
Wen’s Unbiased-Biased Rating: ★★★★★