Alan Yang has made a career out of producing and directing popular sit-coms like Parks & Rec, Master of None and The Good Place.
In Tigertail, his feature film debut as a director, Yang leaves his sense of humor behind and brings audiences a drama about strained family relationships and lost loves. While Tigertail is a well-made film with uniformly excellent performances, it’s not nearly as deep as it tries to be.
Grover is a young Taiwanese man who dreams of a better life in America. Every day, he and his mother leave their humble home to walk to the local factory where they toil side-by-side. They eat meager dinners, talk of brighter futures, and do it all again the next day.
He is infatuated with Yuan, a local girl who shares his passion for music and dancing. She’s spontaneous, exciting, and an escape from his mundane factory life. When Grover tells his boss of his desire to move to America to pursue his dreams, an opportunity begins to take shape.
If he marries his boss’ daughter, he can go to America with enough seed money for a modest start, or he can continue to work in the factory and pursue his flirtations with Yuan.
Tigertail is a story of the road not taken and the nature of middle-age regret. The interludes with young Grover, his mother and Yuan are told in flashbacks. It’s the tale of a man who chooses the “responsible” path and leads a mostly joyless life as a result.
His marriage is passionless and results in a daughter from whom he is estranged. Everyone in Grover’s orbit has moved on to find some form of happiness while he wallows in misery.
Tigertail features a quiet performance from Chinese-American actor Tzi Ma as the middle-aged Grover. You will instantly recognize him from his numerous appearances in American films and television series that began in 1979. However, Alan Yang’s screenplay fails to give Tzi Ma much to work with.
After spending over 90 minutes with Grover, he remains an enigma, a character whom we come to know better, but only on the surface.
Pauses and silences are often used to highlight a film’s thematic content and give audiences a moment to digest what they are seeing, to briefly live in the same space as the film.
Tigertail has a tendency to leave its characters silent when any normal person would say something. Rather than leading to a sense of understanding, the silences alienate the audience. There are several moments where the film begins to truly take flight and find a sense of momentum, but the weight of its silences drop it back down to Earth once again.
The box office success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 and the critical success of The Farewell in 2019 have opened the doors to writers and directors of Asian-American descent to tell their stories. These stories of immigrants and the prices they pay to make new lives for themselves in a strange country are a rich vein for filmmakers to mine.
Unfortunately, Tigertail fails to say anything unique about the Asian-American experience and only skims the surface of its narrative.
Tigertail is currently streaming on Netflix.