Cultural diversity in film has taken huge leaps over the past decade and Netflix has been a big part of that providing access to foreign films and diverse casts. The streaming giant is continuing that trend into 2020 with its latest release, “Tigertail”. Featuring a mix of Taiwanese, Mandarin and American English, “Tigertail” tells the story of Pin-Jui who grows up in the Taiwan township of Huwei (which translates to “tiger tail”) and eventually immigrates with hopes of a better life to America. The film alternates between the past, where Pin-Jui is played by Hong Chi-Lee, to the present, where he is played by Tzi Ma, showing Pin-Jui’s journey as an immigrant and how his struggles translated into him being a broken man late in life. Directed and written by Alan Yang of “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None” fame, “Tigertail” attempts to provide a glimpse into the harsh realities of immigrant life in America. How well does it capture its emotion-driven plot and story? Let’s take a closer look in my review of “Tigertail”.
Released at a time where prejudice against Asians is increasing at a disturbing rate due to negative stereotypes associated with the coronavirus, “Tigertail” had an opportunity to be a timely bit of honesty and truth to open the eyes of a captive audience. While it serves the purpose of exploring the struggles of immigration this isn’t the examination of cultural identity that I expected it to be. Alan Yang and his cast imbue this film with plenty of sincerity and heart as we see some amazing performances come to life on the screen. The problem is each of these performances individually deserve recognition but the lack of chemistry among the characters and a heavy dependence of familiar story tropes that all prove to be terribly distracting.
I kept waiting for this movie to rise to the level of excellent films like “Parasite”, “Roma” and “The Farewell”, but it never quite gets there. It starts off on the right foot but then slowly delves into monotony and borrows basic character conflicts from past dramas adapting them for its own purpose eventually devolving into a by the books examination of relationships where it should have been more complex. From the arranged marriage in Pin-Jui’s young adulthood to his broken relationship with his daughter at an older age most of the interpersonal conflict feel like surface level experiences and rarely take the time to properly dive into the emotional depth of the moment. Individually most of the actors do a great job with what they have to work with, but an uninspired script and a lack of proper development of relationships leaves a lot of the film’s most inspiring and touching moments feeling out of place in otherwise bland exchanges. I get that the idea was to show Pin-Jui’s detachment from others but the writing and directing lacks that special touch needed to sell us on the complexity of these relationships. So what might have started off as an artistic choice feels more like a lack of chemistry between the actors than the characters.
Where “Tigertail” works best though is when it focuses solely on Pin-Jui. Not his daughter, not his wife or mother, but him and him alone. Hong Chi-Lee and Tzi Ma are excellent as the young adult and elder versions of the character as we see Pin- Jui make sacrifices he feels are for the betterment of his family only to discover that everything he is doing leaves him feeling empty. Those that do benefit from his sacrifices he perceives as ungrateful eventually resenting these people for decisions he, himself controlled. He ends up in a soulless marriage when he had the love of his life back home. His mother seems uninterested in coming to America even though her well being is a huge reason why Pin-Jui makes his sacrifices. When he arrives in America he finds himself at a shoddy apartment having to work his way from the bottom thus watering down his American dream. You can easily imagine how this experience would result in the cynical old man we see Pin-Jui become which provides a strong emotional core for the film especially when the finale forces him to revisit what he lost. While Pin-Jui’s story is stained with clichés and imperfect and underdeveloped relationships, seeing him as a person evolve for the better or the worse helps keep “Tigertail” afloat where other story elements fail.
While “Tigertail” succeeds in capturing the human experience of immigration, there should have been so much more to take away from this movie. Pin-Jui’s story is engaging on its own, but the relationships he forms required more sincerity to keep me as a viewer fully involved. A consistent sense of familiarity also clouds an otherwise noble examination of one man’s struggle for a better life while excellent acting help make up for shoddy relationship building and a distracting lack of chemistry. Overall “Tigertail” ends up being a promising idea that’s never quite fully realized. It’s an above average film but nowhere near the expectations I personally set for it. For what it’s worth “Tigertail” is an acceptable final product and worthy Netflix experience, even if an ultimately flawed one.