Arts movie review

‘Tigertail’ is a flawed portrait of an immigrant family

The film highlights the complexity of language in a Taiwanese-American household

Directed by Alan Yang
Starring Tzi Ma, Christine Ko, Lee Hong-Chi, Joan Chen
Rated PG, Released April 10
Available on Netflix

Tigertail is the classic immigrant story: a young man leaves his native country for the United States, only to find that he has sacrificed family and love for ambition. While the film attempts to explore the complexities of a family fragmented by cultural and geographic barriers, its unconvincing character development makes the plot seem forced and the protagonist unsympathetic.

Pin-Jui (Hong Chi-Lee and Tzi Ma) is a Taiwanese factory worker who immigrates to 1970s New York City for economic opportunity so that he can provide for his aging mother. The film portrays his relationships with the four women who shape his life: his mother, his childhood friend and first love Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang and Joan Chen), his wife Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li and Fiona Fu), and his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Even as he sings Otis Redding with Yuan on a moonlit night, Pin-Jui is acutely aware that he cannot marry her because her family is wealthy. Instead, he marries Zhenzhen, the daughter of his boss, who finances his journey to America. The story is told in flashbacks and time jumps. We see the unhappy marriage, the divorce, the father’s inability to empathize with his American daughter when her fiancé leaves her. After Pin-Jui’s mother dies, he brings his daughter back to Taiwan and tells her about his past, healing their relationship.

While viewers may hope to sympathize with Pin-Jui as they did with Awkwafina’s Chinese-American character in The Farewell, his inconsistent character development makes him at once puzzling and unlikeable. In one scene, he fervently promises to bring his mother to America so she can live a comfortable life. In the next, he leaves Taiwan without telling Yuan. He buys Zhenzhen a keyboard so she can learn music in America. In the next scene, he chastises her for dreaming of becoming a teacher. The other characters fall into various Asian-American cliches: the submissive wife, the mother who suffers patiently halfway across the world, the beautiful and generic first love, the high-achieving daughter estranged from her parents’ culture. The bitter conflict between Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen seems forced, especially because the film only portrays a few scattered conversations between them. Likewise, the twenty-year time jump from Angela’s childhood to a strained adult relationship with her father leaves much to be explained.

Perhaps this ambivalent tone of storytelling is intended. It is implied throughout the film that Pin-Jui is a deeply flawed man who hides his emotions and struggles to communicate with his family. After all, he marries a woman he doesn’t love for money and pragmatism, and he disapproves of Angela’s fiancé because he is poor. It still seems disingenuous that Pin-Jui suddenly opens up to his daughter after reconnecting with a middle-aged Yuan. It seems unrealistic that after a lifetime of ignoring the emotional needs of the women in his life, he decides at a dinner party to confide in Angela about his youth. In fact, Angela’s unhappiness and second-generation American struggles seem to mainly be a vehicle for Pin-Jui to reflect on his own blunders and regrets.

Tigertail partially compensates for its lack of character development by highlighting the complexities of language in an immigrant household. Pin-Jui speaks Taiwanese with his mother, Mandarin with his girlfriend and wife, and English with his daughter. In a poignant scene, Angela asks him to express sympathy for her breakup, but he can only muster a short, unemotional response: “Sounds difficult.” The tender relationship between Pin-Jui and his mother (who refuses to follow him to America because she can’t speak English) and later, the estrangement between Pin-Jui and his children are portrayed through language. A particularly nice touch is Zhenzhen’s friendship with another Mandarin-speaking woman in America, who becomes her confidante when Pin-Jui refuses to listen to her.

The film is also visually rich, illuminating the mundane details of domestic life with hope or despair, depending on the mood of Pin-Jui’s life. His youth is depicted in bright, vibrant colors as he runs through a green field and dances with Yuan in the warm glow of a golden evening. The scenes in America have a colder, harsher palette: Pin-Jui scolds his young daughter in a darkened car, Zhenzhen flatly demands a divorce in the living room of their house in the suburbs. When Pin-Jui and Angela return to Taiwan at the end of the film, the vibrant imagery of spring in his childhood village signifies the healing associated with acknowledging the family’s past. 

Tigertail works reasonably well as a period piece, especially in its exploration of social class and wealth in 1970s Taiwan. While Zhenzhen’s and Angela’s inner lives are unclear at best, it is easy to believe that the young, working-class Pin-Jui feels he is wasting his youth in a dismal factory and naively dreams of a better life in an economically booming America. Yet unlike other immigrant movies that tell the story of several generations (The Farewell, Crazy Rich Asians), Tigertail fails to deliver on its central promise: to portray a complex, believable family that viewers can root for.