In ‘Tigertail,’ Talking Helps an Immigrant Family Heal

Alan Yang's film is a comment on how immigrant families communicate their generational differences and struggles.

Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) in Alan Yang’s directorial debut Tigertail. Cinematography by Nigel Bluck. Netflix

Alan Yang’s directorial film debut, Tigertail, is about the quiet trauma of broken dreams, grief and regret. Yang, a co-creator and writer of Master of None, has written candidly about the fact that growing up, he stifled his Taiwanese heritage to fit into American culture. Later in life, he began to see how important that heritage was to him. And now he tells a story inspired by his family’s life, in a film with an all Asian/Asian American cast. It follows the trajectory of the life of Taiwanese man, Pin-Jui (based on Yang’s father and played at different ages by Hong Chi-Lee and Tzi Ma), from boyhood to being a divorced elderly man living in New York and struggling to communicate with his daughter.

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The coverage of immigrant stories has been a recent phenomenon in film and television, with the narrative shaped mostly by the younger generation that grew up American. Like “Parents,” an episode credited to Yang in Master of None, Tigertail focuses on the parent’s journey. He shows us the subtle differences between the lives of four generations and the geographies they inhabit, from the rural to the urban and across continents. They live through wildly different circumstances, which creates a disconnect in their ability to relate to each other.

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Watered with captivating but rare glimpses of hope, the deliberately slow pace of the film reveals the deep wounds that form through long pauses and the heavy silence of the unsaid. A cycle of pain ripples from one generation to the next and a single decision changes the course of the characters’ lives. Pin-Jui, a spirited young man from a poor family, chooses a marriage of circumstance over Yuan, the woman he loves.

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Hong Chi-Lee and Kunjue Li as the younger Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen, respectively, who have arrived in the United States. Netflix

In a scene shot in the exact factory that Yang’s father and grandmother worked at, Pin-Jui’s mother gets injured, awakening his need to provide for her. He marries a woman whose father has arranged for them to move to the United States, offering him an opportunity to give himself and his mother a better life. American cultural dominance at the time held promise for the rest of the world: prosperity, happiness and freedom. But the US isn’t the shiny and free place they imagined, and life there is harsh and alienating. Illustrating the realities of the immigrant experience of “the American dream” for many people of color. Pin-Jui goes from being passionate and driven to being cold, withdrawn and bitter.

The difference is palpable. Portrayed through the different filming styles, the past in Taiwan is vibrant and nostalgic. The scenes are shot on 16mm film, creating a bright world of highly saturated colors and a dream-like “old” feel, while the present in the US is shot on digital, leaving scenes feeling more modern, but comparatively, intentionally dull and lacking in color.

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The reprimand. Netflix

Loneliness fills up the film. There are very few times that Pin-Jui shares a frame with someone else, evoking that isolation. In the opening scene we see him in the fields, running toward his father and mother, whom he’s seen working nearby. He trips and when he gets up, they’re gone. He had imagined them. His father had passed away and his mother had left him with his grandparents to search for work. His grandmother reprimands him for crying that he misses them. She tells him to be strong and that he shouldn’t let anybody see him cry.

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“Crying never solves anything,” Pin-Jui tells his children as an adult. Netflix

The ramifications of this ripple throughout his life, as he learns how to suppress his emotions through all the disappointments. And the cycle follows later in the film when his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko), cries after messing up her piano recital. Her father shouts the exact words that were said to him by his grandmother: “Crying never solves anything. Be strong.”

The difficulty in communication continues into his daughter’s adult life, and they barely develop a relationship. She, yearning for her father to comfort her, is hurt trying to understand why he won’t. The plot is simple but powerful; they slowly start to talk openly—something that a lot of immigrant families have trouble doing across generations. Through this they begin to heal. For those of us who grew up as immigrant kids watching, the desperation in their shared moments is personal. While we can so clearly see Pin-Jui’s shortcomings, we’ve witnessed his life and we understand him. We see his struggle in the memories of our own families. It offers catharsis and gives us hope that we may slowly begin to understand each other.

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“What did you do after Mom left?” Angela (Christine Ko) asks Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma). Netflix

After Angela goes through a painful breakup, Pin-Jui takes her to Taiwan, where he went when his marriage ended. Just as Yang himself traveled to Taiwan with his father as an adult and learned about his father’s life, Angela learns about Pin-Jui and begins to understand him better. Pin-Jui takes her to the rice fields, shows her the places he walked and they finally end up at his late mother’s house in the final scene of the movie. Seeing how run down it is seems to shock him. He mentions the bar he used to go to with Yuan, and his eyes flood with uncontrollable tears. Angela gently places her hand on his shoulder. So many years after his grandmother stopped him from crying, Angela gives him permission to finally grieve.

The film ends as the camera pulls back, framing them both within the house—an image layered with the passing of time and the assembly of all its disconnected parts. He is, for once, not alone.

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The end of Tigertail. Netflix

Tigertail is available to stream on Netflix (NFLX).

Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.

In ‘Tigertail,’ Talking Helps an Immigrant Family Heal