Review: ‘Tigertail,’ despite shortcomings, tells necessary, messy and heartbreaking tale

by Chloe Jung | 5/4/20 3:00am

On April 10, Netflix released Alan Yang’s “Tigertail,” a film inspired by the experiences of Yang’s father that follows the life of Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), a Taiwanese-American immigrant. Despite a few flaws, “Tigertail” shares a touching, authentic and relatable story about the Asian-American immigrant experience.

Cutting between the past and present, the film links the trauma of Pin-Jui’s childhood, his disillusionment with the American dream and his marital dissatisfaction to his current strained relationship with his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). By showing the influence of Pin-Jiu’s past experiences on his present situation, “Tigertail” explores the connections between communication and love while beautifully capturing an unspoken piece of the Asian-American immigrant experience: the stories of our parents.

For anyone in need of a cathartic cry, I strongly recommend watching “Tigertail.” What makes this film so emotional and poignant is its ability to tell a real and multidimensional story with relatable characters. Despite Pin-Jui’s excruciating coldness and lack of speech, I felt the weight of his pain and hurt for him as if he were my own father. Despite the equal stiffness of Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu), Pin-Jui’s ex-wife, and her lack of effort in their marriage, I perfectly understood why she despises Pin-Jui. And most of all, despite Angela’s lack of patience and understanding for her own father — or perhaps because of it — I saw myself clearly reflected in her. 

In a particular memory, Pin-Jui expresses sharp disappointment over a mistake Angela makes at a piano recital. As she cries, he yells at her to stop, stating that crying never solves anything. Yang juxtaposes this flashback with a scene in the present, in which Zhenzhen criticizes Pin-Jui for being too hard on Angela. He retorts, “I’m not hard on her. I only want what’s best for her.” 

There may be some viewers who can empathize with this kind of parental relationship. Besides the clear parallelism between Angela’s childhood and Pin-Jui’s own, this scene reminded me all too much of my own father. A spitting image of Pin-Jui, my father is a stern Chinese-American immigrant and a man of few words. He often comes off as callous and unemotional. And I know that when it comes to having a detached relationship with an Asian immigrant father, I’m not alone in my experience.

In another memory, Pin-Jui expresses disapproval over Angela’s engagement, arguing that Angela’s fiance lacks ambition and a well-paying job. As they quarrel over the importance of money, Angela tearfully says, “He makes me happy,” to which her father responds, “You really think that’s enough?” 

In many Asian immigrant households, the importance of financial stability takes precedence — marrying solely for happiness is a privilege. For many second-generation Asian-Americans, reconciling the Eastern ideology of collectivism with the Western ideology of individualism can be difficult. This dilemma forces the children of Asian immigrants to choose between honoring their parents’ sacrifices and staying true to themselves. Both Pin-Jui and Angela prove to be imperfect but painfully authentic characters whose experiences often run parallel to each other. The only difference is that Pin-Jui, unlike Angela, sacrificed his happiness with Yuan (Joan Chen), an unrequited love from his youth, for financial security. He knows from experience that happiness isn’t “enough.”

As the film nears its conclusion, Pin-Jui reconnects with Yuan, who encourages him to repair his relationship with his daughter. In a key revelation, Yuan says, “Maybe before she opens up, she needs you to open up to her first.” Later, in her apartment, Angela and her father sit side-by-side at the dining table drinking tea, a direct contrast to earlier shots of them sitting and eating alone in their separate homes. The skillful use of parallels in “Tigertail” underscores the interconnectedness between the past and the present. The film ends with Pin-Jui taking Angela to his old home in Taiwan, where he finally opens up about his life to her. In this transformative moment, he cries.

The film’s conclusion brings the sorrowful story to a reassuring end, suggesting a fresh and hopeful beginning for Angela and Pin-Jui’s journey towards reconnection. The characters, in all their well-written depth, come alive. I can’t help but believe that we all know a Pin-Jui, a Zhenzhen, a Yuan and an Angela, whether in ourselves or in others. With its relatable characters, poetic writing, heartfelt acting and stunning cinematography, it’s hard not to get absorbed into Yang’s world, which feels so tangible and familiar.

But with the added weight of sorrow on an already slow piece, “Tigertail” could benefit from better pacing and greater variations in its tone to prevent the film from dragging at times. For this reason, it may fail to reach and resonate as strongly with others  — particularly non-Asian Americans — in the same way. But despite falling just short of a masterpiece, “Tigertail” is still a worthwhile watch that will leave you feeling melancholy but fulfilled. It is a story about communication, family, loss, longing and love. It is about losing and finding.

For Asian-Americans now, there is nothing more needed and empowering than positive, authentic representation. For us, it means finding comfort, unity, compassion and hope during a time of isolation and fear. It means — after decades of bigotry, invisibility and conditioned silence — that we can speak out and make our stories heard.