Directed by: Alan Yang
Written by: Alan Yang
Starring: Tzi Ma, Christine Ko, Fiona Fu, Joan Chen, Kunjue Li, Hong-Chi Lee, Yo-Hsing Fang, James Saito, Cindera Che, Hayden Szeto, Kuei-Mi Yang, Muyi Chen, Zhi-Hao Yang, Hai-Yin Tsai, Lynn Cheng, Raymond Ma
Tigertail is Alan Yang’s dream-like feature film about Pin-Jui (Lee, Tzi Ma), a man who has a much richer life than what he’s led his daughter Angela (Ko) to believe. In fact, he hasn’t told her anything about himself and his past, much of it couched in the deep feelings of regret and pain he has from immigrating to America from Taiwan.
As we learn in the film, Pin-Jui was in love with another woman, Yuan (Fang, Chen) before he decided to move to America in an attempt to give his mother Minghua (Kuei-Mei Yang) a better life, which means marrying his factory boss’ daughter, Zhenzen (Li, Fu).
It’s Pin-Jui’s lack of opening up—his stubbornness to not reveal himself—that keeps him from forming a relationship with his daughter. He also unknowingly passes on this burden of not speaking about and letting go of pain to her, as we see her following in her dad’s footsteps when it comes to pushing people, like her fiancé Eric (Szeto) away and stuffing down feelings of regret. Indeed, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Tigertail is, on the surface, about one man’s story of immigrating to America. But it is, in fact, more than just a standard immigration tale. It’s an honest, revealing look at how the act of immigrating is found in all aspects of life, as we move from one psychological state to another. It’s how we can remain stuck in the past and its pain instead of taking the steps to move towards peace, acceptance and, possibly, a chance to start over.
I felt Tigertail was a story that was told honestly, and with an emphasis on the human condition. I quickly connected with both Pin-Jui (who is listed on IMDB as “Grover”) and Angela, a father and daughter who feel like they will never relate to each other despite having more in common than they think. Like Angela and Pin-Jui, I grew up with a sense of knowing that not everyone can manage emotions and, instead, would rather everyone else be emotionally constipated like them.
Pin-Jui learned this early with his grandmother, who told him not to cry about his dead father and struggling mother, as it does nothing. He relayed that message to Angela as a child, who was crying after making a mistake during a piano recital, instead of reassuring her in her time of distress. Perhaps, for some people, like Pin-Jui’s grandmother, accessing emotion is seen as a privilege to those who have time to worry about needless stuff; it’s not a privilege for those who have to literally survive, as she had to do.
But it’s this erroneous advice, told in love, that sets Pin-Jui and Angela up for a rocky road. Because Pin-Jui never learned how to speak of his pain, he unknowingly left a lot of pain in his wake as he grew up—first his girlfriend Yuan, his wife Zhenzhen, his daughter, and himself. All he learned, instead, was how to keep calm and carry on, stuffing his feelings instead of understanding that emotions are more powerful than we are taught.
Pin-Jui is an example of someone who has become comfortable with stacking up pain, regret, annoyance and lost dreams, and associating that with “growing up.” He became comfortable with losing who he was and throwing himself away (quite literally, when it comes to a point in the film where he tells Zhenzhen to throw away a record that was sentimental to him and his former life). He’s also probably scared of reliving that trauma as well, since accessing traumatic experiences is often taxing and seems like more trouble than it’s worth. But it’s only when he does this and relive his life through the eyes of Angela that he accesses a part of himself that he thought was lost forever.
What can we learn from Tigertail? I think for me, what I came away with is a better understanding of some of the adults I’ve encountered in my life, including my own parents. I understand even more now that adults aren’t people who know everything, nor are some inaccessible simply because they don’t feel anything. Adults are just humans who are lost and struggling, just like anyone else. As humans, we have a tendency to act out in subconscious patterns, not realizing what type of damage we could be doing to others because of our own naval-gazing. True maturity, therefore, isn’t in learning how to stuff feelings and act like every other dysfunctional person. True maturity comes with having the courage to face yourself, including your flaws and mistakes, and work to make peace with them.
I feel like if you’re looking for a film that is much more about the nitty gritty of the Taiwanese immigrant experience, Tigertail might leave a lot to be desired in that respect, as this film seems to be focused much more on universal emotions and family drama rather than events that speak toward cultural tacit knowledge. In this respect, some might feel Tigertail is the retelling of a first-hand immigrant experience from a second or third generation, a generation more removed from the actual struggle. Indeed, seeing how the film is by a second-generation American like Yang, the film might play to some as more of a hazy recount of stories his dad has told him rather than an actual, true-to-life biography.
But for me, I highly recommend Tigertail, which is streaming on Netflix now. It’s a character study showing how life can, for some people, turn out much different than what they expect. It’s also a film that showcases the type of work needed to mend hearts, relationships, and create a more peaceful life. You will come away from the film having invested yourself in a story about the trials and tribulations of humanity, which can be as messy as it is inspiring.