REEL Review – Tigertail (2020)

Director: Alan Yang | Runtime: 1h 31mins | Drama, Romance | Language: Taiwanese, Mandarin, English

As a young adult, Taiwanese factory worker Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) dreams of living in America with his childhood sweetheart Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang) as they enjoy their romanticisms around the area of Huwei. Years later, a much older Grover (Tzi Ma) struggles to connect with his adult daughter, and the shadow of his divorce amplifies his solitude.

The name Alan Yang is one growing in his recognisability, making his break into writing by joining the team on Parks and Recreations (2009-2015), but really hitting his stride by co-creating the Netflix gem Master Of None (2015-2017) with it’s star Aziz Ansari. Tigertail is another project for the streaming giant, as well as Yang’s debut for direction and writing in a feature film, but Yang finds clear inspiration from creating Master of None, and one episode in particular – Parents.

In the episode, Ansari and the character that embodies Yang decided to learn more about their fathers, and the very different journeys they took migrating to America. There’s a structural technique in the episode that’s used in Tigertail, in which the older characters will be looking into the distance, very stoic, and it suddenly cuts to their past. When used in the Master of None episode, it’s very effective as a juxtaposition of what they came from and their lives now, in this film it’s more hit and miss than anticipated as it’s repeated many times throughout. Pin-Jui’s daughter Angela (Christine Ko) is a important aspect of his development in the present and this flashback technique is potentially more effecting when it happens to her, showing us an argument with her father over a partner who ends up leaving her. Arguably it’s most effective because it’s sparsely used for Angela, but it’s that same reason it worked so well in the episode it’s based from.

There’s some reality that Yang is basing the story from here, using his own fathers life as foundations for the narrative, which is certainly why there is a real success in the level of emotional resonance with Pin-Jui. Starting with him as a young boy, we learn his own father has died and his mother can’t earn enough to properly care for him, so Pin-Jui must live with his Grandparents until she can. Here, he meets Yuan, and a young romance starts to bloom. Her family is much wealthier than Pin-Jui’s though, so it’s very frowned upon, and once he moves back with his mother their contact is lost for a few years. This is where the story really kicks in though and starts to hit it’s emotional core.

In the town of Huwei Pin-Jui reconnects with Yuan, and being more mature they continue the relationship that began years earlier. These are the most effective sequences, deeply romantic and emotionally charged. There’s echos of Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000) in the relationship that shouldn’t be but they can’t help it, and finding the most romance in the simplest scenario’s, dances at bars and walks in the forest. Throughout all of this, Pin-Jui always dreams of moving to America, but the financial situation he and his mother are constantly in make this feel impossible – until he’s given an option. He’ll get his dream of moving to the US, but everything else in his life will change.

Most of the narrative we follow in America is quite flat, and doesn’t resonate the same as when we in Taiwan

Most of the latter conflict comes from him choosing to move, and the regret surrounding the choices he made. Pin-Jui struggles to connect with his daughter, he’s very closed off and has caused a rift between the two – Pin-Jui returns from Taiwan after attending his mothers funeral with Angela picking him up at the airport, unaware of the funeral or that he had even gone away. It’s an interesting dynamic given more intrigue through the flashbacks of Pin-Jui as a happy, emotional young man, and the cold drained future he had ahead of him – though is isn’t quite enough to elevate the present scenes to the same quality as the past.

Most of the narrative we follow in America is quite flat, and doesn’t resonate the same as when we in Taiwan. It’s all very well acted but lacks the depth of the earlier story, there isn’t the same beauty as when Pin-Jui was a young man – and this is certainly intentional, much of the resolution is coming to terms with past choices and moving on from the regret that ends up almost consuming you, but by being so flat is gives us little to latch on to emotionally.

This isn’t purely narrative as well, the scene’s set in America look and feel less vibrant. It’s a lot more grey, and the colours lack the same depth as in Taiwan, it isn’t just emotionally flat but aesthetically too. Partially this will be due to the colour grade given, there’s not much depth to the image we’re looking at, especially when it’s quickly juxtaposed against the lush rice fields of Pin-Jui’s childhood.

Though Yang has certainly achieved a lot with his debut in Tigertail, there are aspects making half the story fall flat compared to the other. There’s many elements to love, the tone is superbly balanced between a sombre future and a hopeful, romantic past, and the narrative on the whole is very interesting, but you’ll find yourself sitting through well acted but glum sequences waiting for the story of how that story came to be.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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