“Tigertail” is the feature film directorial debut of Alan Yang, previously most famous for being the award-winning co-creator of the Netflix comedy “Master of None.” For “Tigertail,” Yang has taken inspiration from stories about his own father leaving Taiwan and coming to America. This results in a movie about the fictional character Pin-Jui. We first meet Pin-Jui as a young child growing up with his grandmother in the fields of Taiwan. At this stage of his life, he navigates the uncertainty of where his mother is as well as government forces who see his very existence as a problem. It is in this period of his life that Pin-Jui is instilled with lessons from his grandmother to not cry and keep his focus on practical matters.
Such pearls of wisdom leave their mark on Pin-Jui, who we subsequently follow through various parts of his life. Yang's script for “Tigertail” cuts back and forth between sequences set in the present day world where a middle-aged Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma) is struggling to connect with his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). We also see extended flashbacks to a 20-something Pin-Jui (played by Hong Chi-Lee) as he works in a dangerous factory with his mother and, in his off time, engages in a romantic infatuation with Yuan (Joan Chen). In order to ensure his mother doesn't have to keep going back to a hostile workspace, Pin-Jui chooses to get married to a woman he barely knows, Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu), so that he may have the chance to start a new life in New York City.
“Tigertail” intends to cover a lot of territory concerning the life of one man, all the while carrying a subdued slow-pace aesthetic. If there is a deficit in Yang's writing, it's that a longer run time would have allowed more of the critical events in Pin-Jui's life a chance to breathe. His gradual decline in spirits during his time in America especially feels rushed. Pin-Jui goes from listening to some of his favorite peppy vinyl records to casually dismissing them as items that can be tossed out in the space of a few minutes. This issue is compounded by Yang's decision to keep the proceedings muted to match the psychological head space of middle-aged Pin-Jui. This approach has its fair share of benefits. But in “Tigertail's” more rushed moments, this style of storytelling means the viewer doesn't get a chance to even connect with what's briefly transpiring onscreen.
That said, “Tigertail's” subdued nature has far more pluses than minuses. For one thing, the emptiness of Pin-Jui's modern life is well-realized, particularly in regard to how Yang frames shots depicting this character alone in his home. The vast amount of empty space surrounding Pin-Jui as he eats dinner speaks volumes about how lonely this character is without ever uttering a line of dialogue. Opting for restraint also benefits “Tigertail” on a narrative level. Yang rejects the notion of creating drama out of extremely over-the-top scenarios. There aren't any secret lovers or grandiose twists that cause a rift in the marriage between Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen. Ditto for the circumstances leading to Pin-Jui and Angela's fractured relationship.
Instead, more mundane sources of conflict emerge that inform of the tormented dynamics that Pin-Jui has with the people in his life. It's particularly interesting how “Tigertail” depicts that many of his problems stem from his constant defaulting to pragmatic solutions rather than personally fulfilling ones. The best result of “Tigertail” deciding to examine so much of one character's life is that it allows the audience a chance to see the long-term consequences of this particular defect in Pin-Jui's personality. Ripple effects of his choices, made out of practicality rather than passion, just keep going well into the modern-day segments of the story. Yang's screenwriting manifests such consequences in a dramatically engaging fashion.
The same can be said for the lead performance of Ma as the oldest version of Pin-Jui. Ma proves thoroughly convincing in depicting Pin-Jui as a man who speaks and emotes as little as possible. He's a person whose life has left him with a hardened shell, which puts him at an immense distance with anyone who crosses his path including his own daughter. Ma impressively renders that personality in a manner that garners audience sympathy rather than immediately turning us off from him. Partially this is due to narration that Ma delivers over the various segments of “Tigertail” that offer a glimpse into a more wistful version of Pin-Jui, which he was told long ago by his grandmother to bury deep inside himself. While “Tigertail” has its share of shortcomings, Yang's directorial debut offers plenty of elements that stand out in a positive way, particularly in regard to an outstanding turn by Ma.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends … and watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website, landofthenerds.blogspot.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.