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A still from 'Tigertail'. (Netflix/File)
Everyone wants what’s best for their families. Even if it means they have to leave the lives they’ve built behind and start anew somewhere, as long as it’s for the better future, it’s a cost that most people are willing to pay. No one knows this better than immigrants.
This portrait of the immigrant experience and the emotional cost of the American dream is what Alan Yang explores in his directorial feature debut Tigertail, a moving story about love, regret and family that was released on Netflix earlier this month. Though it does not exactly break new ground and though there have been movies and series on the same subject, like Yang’s own Master of None, Tigertail is nevertheless a welcome addition.
The movie begins by introducing us to the protagonist Pin-Jui – also known as Grover – in three different stages of his life. First is when he’s a child (Zhi-Hao Yang) and living with his grandmother in a one-room house at a rice field. The second is when he’s a teenager (Hong-Chi Lee) working at a sugar factory in Taiwan with his mother Minghua (Kuei-Mei Young). The last is when he’s an adult (Tzi Ma) and living a bitter life in America. Throughout the 94-minute movie, multiple time frames move back and forth, creating a sense of duality both in the narrative and visuals. The present was shot in digital, while the past was with a 16mm camera, giving the movie a rich, grainy texture, as seen in Wong Kar Wai’s movies. The multiple timelines may sound like a gimmick to what could’ve been a pretty straightforward movie, but Yang efficiently utilizes it to allow us understand the shift of Grover, who was once a joyful teenager and now a stoic and bitter adult.
The young Grover is full of life and love. He likes to go to a bar and dance to pop music with his girlfriend Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang) every night. Though he leads an impoverished life and has to work a tiring and risky job, Grover knows how to be happy. Early on in the movie, it’s revealed that Grover dreams of going to America, hoping that it will allow him to build a better life for his mom. But given how unlucky his life’s been, Grover realizes going there is nearly impossible. The movie is at its best when it spends its time observing Grover and Yuan’s relationship. The actors' performances are equally magnetic. Whether they’re running from an expensive restaurant or singing to Otis Redding, Tigertail's loveliest moments lie in Lee and Fang’s chemistry.
But this portrait of happiness is fleeting. An opportunity to go to America presents itself when Grover is offered to have an arranged marriage with his boss’ daughter Zhezhen (Kunjue Li). Reluctant at first, Grover eventually agrees to the arrangement for the sake of building better lives for himself and his mom. Living a loveless marriage with Zhezhen in the Bronx, New York, he's stuck in a dead-end job at a bodega. On top of everything else, he realizes that achieving the American dream is not as easy as expected. For this particular part, never once does Yang wallow in melodrama. The focus on Grover’s transformation, instead of driving the film with additional plot points and revelations, is what makes Tigertail remain genuine until the end.
The theme of regret and loss also extends the film’s exploration into the difficult relationship of Grover and his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). The second half of the movie is about reconciliation, and it’s during this moment that Tigertail successfully reframes itself as more than a personal story about immigrants – rather, it is more a universal exercise on our difficulties of being honest and vulnerable in front of other people.
Tigertail is, of course, far from flawless. The dialogue between Angela and Grover can feel uneven and its brief duration robs the movie some of its emotional beats. But in the end, Tzi Ma’s heartbreaking performance as the adult Grover, along with Yang’s humble direction, is enough to warrant the movie a deserving watch. With Master of None, Little America and now Tigertail, Yang has championed various angles of the immigrant experience like no one has before. (wng)
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