The semi-autobiographical tale of writer-director Alan Yang’s father, “Tigertail” is an intimate, restrained portrayal of the immigrant experience — how one’s decision to leave their native home is often preceded with hope but followed with regret over what was left behind.
As a child running around lush rice fields in Taiwan, Pin-Jui (Zhi-Hao Yang) is taught by his grandmother that “crying never solves anything.” All it shows is weakness, which isn’t a luxury his family can afford when they’re struggling to survive. Brief as the interaction may be, it establishes who Pin-Jui grows up to be: a detached man who never allows himself to be vulnerable.
The film cuts back and forth between Pin-Jui’s past and the present where, as a rebellious young man (Hong-Chi Lee) in Taiwan, he dreams of life in the United States. Decades later, as a retiree in New York, Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) struggles to connect with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko), resulting in the two often sitting in silence. All he wants is to move to the United States, not only to provide for his mother Minghua (Yang Kuei-Mei) but to be with his childhood sweetheart Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), the only person who makes him feel less lonely in this world.
Though the characters live a life of poverty and work at a factory with poor labor conditions, the film portrays life in Taiwan as vibrant and colorful. Shots overlayed with grain, similar to the 35mm effect, make the recounts of the past feel like a memory, a recollection of a difficult upbringing. Yet, in hindsight, it was a time in his life that produced the most joyful moments.
Although the film is simple in its execution, Yang beautifully contrasts this visual style when the film shifts to the present to convey how separated Pin-Jui is from his family and friends. Everything around him is muted, from the beige walls in his house to the gray polos he wears. The lifelessness around him is a product of how distant he is as a person.
Pin-Jui sees the physical strain that the factory job is taking on his mother and ultimately decides to leave Taiwan and move to the United States. The only way he could possibly move, however, is by agreeing to marry his boss’s daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), leaving his true love behind without any notice.
Pin-Jui’s departure is not just him leaving his mother or his romantic partner, it’s him leaving Taiwan — the only home he’s ever known. Instead of a cathartic moment where mother and son emotionally embrace, unsure if they’ll ever see one another again, they simply stare at each other and go their separate ways.
This scene, as well as many others, showcases Yang’s restraint in making the film, forgoing overdramatized scenes for quiet, simple sequences between characters. Although the decision to move is a painful one to make, for an immigrant like Pin-Jui, it’s a necessary choice that must be made for the chance at a better life.
Yang’s understanding of this predicament is only bolstered through the silence that runs through the film, creating instances of tenderness. The more time passes and the more silence fills the room, Yang successfully brings feelings of woe to the cinematic space. Despite this, never does the film stray toward excessive pessimism. There’s a fine balance: The audience witnesses a bittersweet feeling of love and hope that never materializes.
The relationship between Pin-Jui and his wife, or the lack thereof, mirrors the relationship he has with his daughter later on in life. Both are hindered by his inability to express emotion. Angela wishes her father would express his care for her, but all he does is stare at her in confusion. Zhenzhen wishes her husband would put as much effort into their marriage as he does into his work.
For Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen, the American dream turns out to not be what they expected. Instead, it’s a dirty studio apartment and not knowing anyone except for one another. They only have each other for support, but even then, they don’t truly know each other.
The two don’t have anything in common; nothing connects them as husband and wife. When Pin-Jui buys a piano with the intention of learning together, there’s a fleeting hope that they’ll finally connect in something. The realities of work and paying bills squander their chance at bonding; the piano is symbolically disregarded, piled under a stack of newspapers.
Yang’s loose interpretation of his father’s life and relationships with his wife and daughter neither attempts to praise nor condemn him. “Tigertail” simply depicts a man who’s been taught to block out any emotion he may have, to put his head down and continue to work. Tragically, the result of his resilience is a community of loved ones who hardly know him.
In Yang’s feature film debut, subtlety runs supreme. The quietly devastating flashback sequences and performances make “Tigertail” a touching tribute about the highs and the lows of the immigrant experience.