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The premise: A young Taiwanese factory worker chooses stability and the promise of prosperity in his life over the woman he loves — and discovers decades later that to connect with his daughter, he’ll have to revisit that decision.
What it’s about: Tigertail’s writer and director Alan Yang is perhaps best known for co-creating Master of None and co-writing most of its episodes with Aziz Ansari. (Prior to that, he was a writer and producer on Parks and Recreation.) With Tigertail, Yang shifts from comedy to family melodrama, crafting a wistful meditation on family, regret, and what makes for a good life in a tale based on his own father’s experience.
The story centers on Pin-Jui (played at different ages by Lee Hong-Chi and Tzi Ma), whose impoverished upbringing in Taiwan leads him to yearn for a better, more exciting life. Tigertail tells the story by framing the present through the lens of the past. In the present, Pin-Jui, now divorced and having lived in America for years, is afraid of spending his retirement years alone; his daughter Angela (Christine Ko) both needs him and is angry at him for the advice he gives her regarding her own life, particularly in her relationship with her fiancé.
Meanwhile, Pin-Jui’s present reminds him of his past. In the 1950s, as a young man in Taiwan, he falls in love with a vivacious young woman. But he decides to leave her and their home country for New York, along with his new wife, Zhenzhen (Li Kunjue), the daughter of his mother’s employer. The couple has a cordial relationship, but they are poor and lonely, living in a dingy New York City apartment. Pin-Jui spends more and more time at the convenience store he ends up managing, while Zhenzhen tries to keep house and find friends. Slowly, the two become more and more alienated from one another.
Named for the town where Pin-Jui spent his youth, Tigertail is clearly influenced (at times perhaps too obviously) by the dreamy, saturated, carefully composed images of filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai or Jia Zhangke, mixing somber and melancholy loneliness with vibrant desire. Sometimes Pin-Jui sits centered and alone in the frame, looking straight ahead; then the film cuts to Angela, doing the same in her own home, and the juxtaposition emphasizes that father and daughter are much more similar than they’d like to believe.
Perhaps that’s why Tigertail feels like an empathetic attempt on Yang’s part to understand a parent who has always seemed aloof. It’s not the first time he’s done so: Among the episodes of Master of None that Yang co-wrote with Ansari is “Parents,” the second episode of the first season, in which both writers grappled with their relationships with their own immigrant parents. In Tigertail he gives the story breathing room, telling it mostly from Pin-Jui’s perspective — and the result is a pensive exploration of regret and recovering lost time through one family’s eyes.
Critical reception: Tigertail has earned generally favorable reviews from critics. At the AV Club, Katie Rife writes that “the film stands out from other dramas of its type in its poignant exploration of the little-discussed emotional consequences of single-mindedly pursuing the American dream.”
How to watch it: Tigertail is streaming on Netflix.