Adamantly Tailing the American Dream, ‘Tigertail’ Is an Immigrant’s Reflection of Ambition, Sacrifice and Regret
A Taiwanese factory worker leaves his homeland to seek opportunity in America, where he struggles to find connection while balancing family and newfound responsibilities in this multi-generational drama.
Director: Alan Yang
Cast: Tzi Ma, Christine Ko, Lee Hong-Chi, Fiona Fu, Joan Chen, Yang Kuei-Mei
Country: United States
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese, English
Runtime: 91 Minutes
If you have searched for Tiger King on Netflix, the most sensationalised docuseries at the moment, you are likely to have chanced upon Tigertail, the second hit under the “tiger” search. That is how I came across this film and I am infinitely glad I did. After getting through the slow first part of the film, the second and third acts make for a compelling and satisfying view into the life and times of an immigrant.
Opening in 60s Taiwan, Tigertail takes the audience through the journey of Pin-Jui’s life, from child to senior. Pin-Jui is hopelessly poor, working a labour intensive factory job. However, he nurses an ambition to move to America and create a better life there. An opportunity to do just that presents itself in the form of an offer made by his boss to facilitate his relocation. The caveat – Pin-Jui has to marry his boss’ daughter and sacrifice the love of his life.
Pin-Jui’s teenage years were greatly impacted by his mother, Minghua, played by Yang Kuei-Mei. From her, he learns strength and resilience as they work together in a factory. His first love comes in the form of the vivacious Yuan, played by Fang Yo-Hisng initially and then by Joan Chen. Yuan teaches him not to stifle his wild streak and explores the exuberance of his youth with him.
Their time together is interrupted by Zhenzhen, played by Li Kunjue first and then Fiona Fu. Props to Li for making a timid and plain character very likeable with her genuine innocence, who teaches Pin-Jui what dutifulness means. Finally, there is Pin-Jui’s daughter, Angela, played by Christine Ko. She has a very difficult relationship with her father and is poised to be the one who liberates him from his years of suffering.
The female characters in Tigertail all play very important roles in Pin-Jui’s life and inevitably shape his experiences. From his mother to his daughter, director Alan Yang puts in proper effort to explore the impact of various women in a man’s life, instead of using the premise as a feminine afterthought. Each character has just enough scope to hold their own but left me wishing they were more developed – a good sign, after all.
There are four timelines that run concurrently in the film, revolving around the development of Pin-Jui’s character – as a child, a young adult, an adult and as a senior. The storytelling bounces around constantly from one timeline to the other but is made very clear by the various actors which phase is being portrayed.
However, the jumpy storyline made for a bumpy and uneven delivery of information. At parts, I found myself confused about some plot details. Having so many linear relationships and storylines jammed together in 91 minutes left many portions and thoughts feeling incomplete. I somewhat felt like I was eating at a restaurant where the food is excellent, but the waiters kept rushing to remove each course before I had the chance to slowly savour it.
The main reason I was craving for more development was because of how well-acted Tigertail is. Young adult Pin-Jui is so likeable that I was almost immediately invested in his journey and began rooting for him. With young adult and senior versions of Pin-Jui being the main focus of the film, casting was critical and Yang nails it with Tzi Ma and Lee Hong-Chi playing those respective phases.
Ma is a veteran actor with a long list of television and film experience under his belt. He’s the actor that you know from somewhere but can’t quite place, often making appearances as the token Asian supplement to western productions. Tigertail may be Ma’s meatiest role yet, making full use of the limelight to shine as the stoic patriarch, a complete opposite to Lee’s portrayal of a younger Pin-Jui.
Lee has wonderful chemistry with everyone he shares a screen with, whether romantically or otherwise, with his boyish good looks. He transitions from young adult to adult Pin-Jui smoothly, losing the playfulness and naivety in his voice and body language, and replacing it with a more learned and jaded persona. Pin-Jui’s character owes a lot of its success to the partnership between these two actors who carry much of the film on their shoulders.
Yang based Tigertail loosely upon his father’s experience of being an immigrant, with the latter narrating the voiceover at the start of the film. Yang brings these struggles to the screen, allowing the younger generation of Asian Americans to witness and appreciate the sacrifices of their parents or grandparents first-hand. They are also treated with lush cinematography of Taiwan and New York, both in the past and present, that draws them into the multiple worlds of Pin-Jui.
While Taiwanese or Mandarin films are not necessarily in everyone’s comfort zone, Tigertail does a good job of presenting an authentic Taiwanese tale that morphs into a relatable modern portrayal of cosmopolitan New York. Pin-Jui’s journey of innocence, hope, dutifulness and regret is a riveting tale through time for everyone that has ever felt displaced in their lives as it emphasises a very important lesson – the willingness to make sacrifices in the larger scheme of things, sometimes at a very heavy cost.
Watch the trailer below!