The first thing you see in Tigertailis wind blowing through rice fields. It's a simple image, a memory from a man in his autumn years. It's melancholy and gorgeous, but also speaks to a potential obstacle. Wind is something that's felt, not really seen. There is a lot of emotion tucked away in Tigertail, but it is at such an intentional remove that it's somewhat stunted by the time it comes to the screen. There's a good chance you'll watch Alan Yang's generational story and by the end think, "Yes, this is touching, but shouldn't I be sobbing like an infant right now?"
The narrator is Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), a tight-lipped, unknowable, but surely very sad man. When we meet him "now" he's being driven by his daughter Angela (Christine Ko), in what looks like Queens, New York, or maybe Long Island, to a modest home where he lives alone. He's returned from Taiwan where he's just buried his mother, but didn't think to invite his children.
When we cut back to his youth in Taiwan (played by Hong-Chi Lee) he has hopes, dreams, and fire. He wants to move to the United States and make enough money so his doting (and sometimes sassy) mother can stop working.
He's also smitten with Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), whom he's known since childhood. Even though she comes from a wealthier family, they hit it off again when they meet again as 20-year-olds. They dance to Taiwanese pop of the era (hats off to this film for introducing me to Yao Su Yong and the Telstars Combo), dine at a fancy restaurant, then split before the check comes because the waiter is a jerk. This last bit is bad behavior in all contexts, except for in a headily romantic montage of youth's erotically-charged folly.
But if Pin-Jui is ever going to break the cycle of a dead-end factory job, he needs to grab any opportunity he can. And it comes when his boss hooks him up with his daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li). Though having no feelings for her, Pin-Jui marries Zhenzhen, then leaves for New York to build a new life.
The streets are hardly paved with gold. What's waiting for him is a tiny, dirty apartment, and long hours at a convenience store. Tigertail's smartest twist, however, is its tremendous sympathy for Zhenzhen. She's lovely in her own way, she's just not Yuan.
And it's clear that she has no real affection for Pin-Jui either. While Pin-Jui works all day, she has no one to speak to, and ends up just hanging out at a laundromat. Luckily, she meets another Taiwanese immigrant, a mother figure in Peijing (Cindera Che). But she's also a cautionary tale. When Shenzhen says she and Pin-Jui have nothing in common, she shrugs and fatalistically says, with her own boorish husband scarfing down dinner, "your life together is what you'll have in common."
Time marches on, but the cuts between then and now are so rapid you barely realize that Angela, the daughter, is supposed to be the heart of the story. A somewhat far-fetched plot twist ("I'm coming to New York!") reunites Pin-Jui with his lost love Yuan, now played by Joan Chen. All the performers do their best, wearing decades of ache on their faces, but it feels like an advertisement for a richer, longer movie we didn't get to see, or a surface-level adaptation of a thick novel.
This is writer-director Alan Yang's first feature film, and clearly it is one that comes from the heart. His career thus far has been in comedy, with credits on Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and as co-creator with Aziz Ansari on Master of None. For a first film, it's nothing to sneeze at. There's also the likelihood that Asian-Americans will respond to it far more on a reflexive level than I, if for no other reason than there are so few other movies saluting Asian immigrants of this generation. At 90 minutes, though, I wish it didn't breeze by so quickly.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
Tigertail is now on Netflix.