By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Tigertail” is a drama about a stoic and stern Taiwanese father who is emotionally estranged from his daughter. The film, which was released on April 10 by Netflix, flicks back and forth between the present day and the past to contextualize why this man is the way that he is.
And it’s totally dull.
It pains me to say that because I am a big fan of “Tigertail” director, writer, and producer Alan Yang, whose other work include “Master of None” and “Forever.”
Bright spots: Tzi Ma and visuals
The father, Pin-Jui, is portrayed by Tzi Ma, a Hong Kong-born actor that you will definitely recognize. He’s prolific and appears in a lot of supporting roles in series such as “The Man in the High Castle,” “24,” and “The Farewell.”
In “Tigertail” though, Ma gets to carry the total weight of the film and imbues Pin-Jui with a depth in just a look or a stare.
“Tigertail” is also just beautiful to look at, in which each shot is carefully composed and blocked so that people fit neatly in doorways, juxtaposed with the structures around them, and are imbued with washes of color. The scenes that take place in the past, in Taiwan, have a photographic quality that is nostalgic and classic-looking.
And sometimes it’s like, enough already.
Not-so-bright spots: the visuals, child actors, and dialogue
Yang’s eye for beautifully composed shots shines through in “Tigertail,” but often the shots linger too long and look too contrived. This could be my bias, because I tend to gravitate toward gritty truthfulness rather than artful honesty.
Like, in one scene, Pin-Jui is having a really difficult conversation with his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko), and the shot is composed with him in the foreground and her a blur in the background. And he is standing with his back to her. I couldn’t settle into the scene because it just looked so unnatural-yet-beautiful.
I just don’t know how often other people have entire arguments with their dads to his back? But maybe I’ve been doing it wrong.
“Tigertail” has so many moments like that, moments in which it tries to convey something real and heavy, but it just looks too pretty that your brain is like, “Wait, this is not real. And those are actors!”
What doesn’t help the feeling of unnaturalness are the child actors who play the younger versions of Pin-Jui and his lost love, Yuan. I am not really about giving passes to young actors for not being masters of their craft when people like Dakota Fanning exist, so when young Pin-Jui was delivering his lines expressing that he hallucinated his mother and father because he misses them so much, I couldn’t get far into it. I was just like, “Nope! This child does not miss his mother at all!”
Lastly, there is the dialogue. I feel like if you are going to write a screenplay with sparse dialogue—when people do talk, the dialogue has to be completely on point.
There’s an unintentional awkwardness with the dialogue though. Sometimes people say stuff that I don’t think human beings actually say to one another. Like, sentences are too neat and too perfect and too poetic— lacking these quirks that convey humanness. Sometimes sentences explain too much.
Like in a flashback, Pin-Jui’s love (Yo-Hsing Fang) tells him there’s a song that’s been stuck in her head all day. She tells him it’s a song by Otis Redding, which is shocking because this Taiwanese girl does not look like an Otis Redding fan at all. And then she sings this English-language song acapella all beautiful as hell, and it’s like, oh, this impoverished girl memorized the English language lyrics to this song by an American Black man? Okay? And then Pin-Jui joins in the song and starts singing like he knows all the lyrics and can speak English too even though he is poverty-stricken AF, so I don’t know, maybe he’s a savant?
Stuff like that happens a lot in this film. It’s hard to stay in the story when these things happen because it feels like the film tries too hard to be artful and deep, and so the effect is actually that the viewer withdraws.
It’s been reported that this movie is based on Yang’s father’s life. I can see the really good intentions of this movie—like how it wants to delve into generational trauma and how it wants to give dignity to the first generation, as personified by Pin-Jui.
But I think my issue with this film is that it largely feels like a retread of stories that have already been told. It’s a “grandpa gets off the boat” story. That is, it’s a story about an Asian individual who suffers a life of political oppression and poverty, who immigrates to America to seek out the American Dream—only to find that the American Dream is a huge let down. They are then doomed to a second life of hard work, in which the proceeding generation will reap the benefits, but oh snap, there’s a cultural and generational gap between parents and child, and they just don’t get each other because they never talk to each other. By the end of the movie, father reaches out to child or child reaches out to father—or they both reach for each other simultaneously and a greater understanding, however modest, signifies an optimistic future and WE HAVE HEARD THIS STORY SO MANY TIMES ALREADY.
There’s a blandness to this beautiful-ass movie that makes it totally forgettable.
Stacy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.