In the present, Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is retired and struggling to connect with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Through extensive flashbacks, he’s shown to have grown up poor in Taiwan, broadly dreaming of migrating to America for a better life but lacking the means to do so. The young Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) ultimately chooses to marry Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) so that her father will pay for their trip despite feeling no emotional connection with her, and having recently been reunited with his childhood sweetheart.
TIGERTAIL spends much of its runtime in the period immediately before and after Pin-Jui’s emigration, showing past actions to explain his epiphanies later in life. This approach leads to an unexpected but intriguing critique of single-mindedly pursuing one’s goals, particularly through the film’s portrayal of Zhenzhen’s aimlessness in America. While her husband goes to work every day, Zhenzhen visits the laundromat with increasingly smaller loads so that she’ll another reason to leave their apartment soon. The scene in which she admits this to the only friend she’s made in America is heartbreaking; Li laughs quietly when delivering the line but is seemingly on the verge of tears.
Casting the protagonist as oblivious and selfish is a risky choice, though Yang makes clever use of the alternating timelines to prevent Pin-Jui from becoming outright loathsome. Scenes of him coldly rejecting Zhenzhen’s dreams of going to school and becoming a teacher are followed by Angela calling him out for not knowing anything about her. These moments technically take place decades apart, but showing them together feels gratifying.
Tzi Ma and Hong-Chi Lee also make Pin-Jui a consistently engaging presence even when the viewer is no longer rooting for him. Lee expertly conveys the subtle shift in his feelings for Zhenzhen from awkwardness to resentment; he barely raises his voice during arguments and literally tries not to face her. Meanwhile, Ma’s stoicism is the perfect canvas for suggesting a man no longer as sure of himself, one willing to take advice from his now ex-wife. Once again, cutting between these contrasting versions of the character is smart, allowing Yang to both reveal the flaws in this conception of the American Dream and propose a solution (which I won’t spoil).
The only confusing aspect of TIGERTAIL is how much it rushes the present-day storyline. This leads to a number of issues, from clunky and expositional dialogue, to poor blocking and editing. For instance, one emotionally charged conversation between Pin-Jui and Angela is interrupted by him turning away from her and walking a few steps, pausing to deliver a few lines, and return to his original position in a matter of seconds. Simply put, I find it hard to believe that this was the most natural-looking take available. Furthermore, I don’t know why Yang devotes so much time to an extended opening sequence of Pin-Jui’s childhood at his grandparents’ rice field. It doesn’t connect to any other part of the story and would be disposable if it weren’t for its beautiful cinematography (a consistent quality of the scenes filmed in Taiwan).
Nevertheless, TIGERTAIL offers a nuanced, distinct and memorable view of immigrant family life and demonstrates Yang’s success should by no means be limited to TV. His thoughtful script, keen grasp of themes and gorgeous choice of setting undeniably outweigh the film’s flaws, and hopefully this is just the start of wider mainstream recognition.