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‘Tigertail’ Brings Decades of Asian Cinema to the Mainstream

Alan Yang’s Netflix film is a profound, deliberate bridge between Asia and the United States, going a long way to make American film feel less local

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The first image of Alan Yang’s Tigertail is two lines of Chinese characters, and below them:

MANDARIN SUBTITLES IN WHITE
[TAIWANESE SUBTITLES IN BRACKETS]

Even in the era of Parasite’s Oscars sweep, this is a bold way to open a film pitched largely to Chinese-illiterate audiences. Especially given that viewers will no longer be able to consume Tigertail in theaters (as was initially planned), but only on Netflix (which produced the film), its demand for sustained attention might feel even more strained. Recall Netflix’s previous subtitled success story, Roma, where one could at least choose the theatrical experience. Tigertail ups the ante by doubling down on its ask: Not only will you watch a subtitled film at home, but you will be tasked with differentiating between Mandarin and Taiwanese.

In our current global pandemic, one that originated in China, a film that requires audiences to attend to the nuances within the Chinese diaspora might feel even more challenging. But Yang’s film—which moves briskly at 91 minutes—is anything but a difficult watch. Tigertail is Yang’s first feature film, though you probably know his name from his previous work on TV series such as Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and Master of None. Born in California, Yang got his start not by working on Chinese foreign films, but in American comedy—writing for Last Call With Carson Daly before transitioning to prime-time television. Among Yang’s forthcoming ventures is a potential collaboration with Marvel Studios. And while Tigertail (which Yang both wrote and directed) is by far his most dramatic and autobiographical project yet, it is by no means illegible to those who have enjoyed his earlier work. Like much of Yang’s TV writing, the film is tender and compassionate, instructive (remember the subtitles) without being didactic. If anything, Tigertail—which explores the Asian American immigrant experience—feels nothing but urgent at a moment when xenophobic sentiments are on the rise.

In many ways, Tigertail tells the fairly generic immigrant story of Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma, everyone’s favorite Asian dad), who departs 1970s Taiwan as a young man to forge a better life in America. Leaving behind both family and a love interest, Pin-Jui makes the financially prudent decision to marry his boss’s daughter, Zhenzhen, partially because it will allow him to move to the Bronx and start a family. Many elements of the stereotypical Asian American intergenerational tale are present: Pin-Jui as the repressive father, Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu) as the sacrificial mother, and their more rebellious and emotional daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Yet, Yang’s film also updates these more traditional tropes in ways appropriate to the contemporary experiences of second-generation Asian Americans. Joining recent films such as Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Yang’s story feels timely in its representation of Asian diasporas as split not only across national, but generational, lines.

Whereas previous Asian American immigrant films by Ang Lee and Wayne Wang tended to focus on American assimilation, Tigertail spends its majority reminiscing over a receding Taiwanese past. Yang’s film begins with Pin-Jui as a young boy, living in the Taiwanese countryside with his grandparents while his single mother seeks work in the city. The opening sequence shows him running across a rice field before his grandmother shoves him into a cupboard when a military car approaches. Soon, soldiers enter the house, interrogate the grandmother, command her to learn Mandarin (over her native Taiwanese), and flagrantly eat one of her apples. The whole thing is not unlike the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Except where Tarantino’s introductory placard announces its setting “in Nazi-occupied France,” Yang’s scene setting is more gestural. For anyone living in China or Taiwan at the time, it will be clear that this opening scene occurs sometime shortly after 1949, when the Kuomintang has taken over Taiwan, but is still scouring the island for communist dissidents. Yang has remarked in interviews how his aim in Tigertail is to “show, not tell,” and such scenes, which mark time not with an explicit date but a recognizable historical scene, do just that.

Yet, like Tarantino’s films, which are often set “once upon a time” in a historical past, Tigertail hints at its own mythologization of otherwise real events. While the film is based on Yang’s own father’s life, the director is also cautious to acknowledge his creative license. As Yang describes in an interview with Vulture, Tigertail is “my fever dream of my dad’s stories melded with some Wong Kar-wai and some Hou Hsiao-Hsien.” This might explain why—despite beginning chronologically—the film unfurls as a series of oscillating flashbacks between the elderly Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) and his younger self (played by an impossibly charismatic Lee Hong-chi). So much of the pleasure of Yang’s film involves piecing the shards together. We come to know Pin-Jui through his scattered memories: as a young boy living in the countryside (where he befriends a girl named Yuan), as a teen working in a Taiwanese factory (where he kindles a romance with Yuan), and as a young adult living in America (where he’s married to someone other than Yuan). Folded inside the traditional Taiwanese American immigrant story—with its typical tropes of sacrifice, striving, and hard work—is a private love story that Tigertail seeks to make visible.

Yang signals the dissonance between past and present—fever dream and current reality—through cinematic cues. The noted Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien influences are viscerally palpable, especially when Yang portrays Pin-Jui’s memories. Scenes set in Taiwan are shot on 16mm film, producing a high-saturated, grainy haze evocative of Wong’s and Hou’s color palettes. Think about the blues in Millennium Mambo, the reds suffusing In the Mood for Love. (The colorist on Tigertail was Alex Bickel, who worked on Barry Jenkins’s Wong-inspired Moonlight.) In contrast, scenes that take place in contemporary America are shot on digital film, evoking a crisp—but bland and desaturated—modernity. In painting Pin-Jui’s Taiwanese past with a more lush and dynamic cinematography, Yang suggests that there might be something even more inspiring than the American Dream.

Early on in the film, a teenage Pin-Jui is dancing with Yuan (Fang Yo-hsing) in a Taiwanese bar. While Pin-Jui boasts about learning his dance moves from “American movies” and jokes about one day dating Faye Dunaway, the scene is overwhelmingly indebted not to American, but to Chinese pop culture. Yuan’s hair and outfit looks like it’s straight out of the Grace Chang playbook. The song they’re dancing to is Taiwanese pop singer Yao Su-Rong’s genuine banger, “Tou xin de ren”—roughly translating to “Heart-stealer”—which is also prominently featured in the Tigertail trailer. As Yang noted in a recent Comedy Bang Bang podcast, Yao’s Mandopop was an integral part of his vision for Tigertail’s vibe, even at the level of the script, which included embedded links to the song. “Tou xin de ren” filters throughout Tigertail as if it’s the film’s heartbeat, a nostalgic upbeat counterpart to the far more sorrowful cello refrain that repeats during each flashback transition.

In addition to Taiwanese pop music, Yang’s film also follows in the footsteps of Taiwan New Cinema directors such as Hou, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-liang, who similarly express big cultural shifts in the minor key of the personal. Some of the most striking moments in Tigertail take place in melancholic silences. They resemble the quiet domestic pauses of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi—a notable influence on Yang’s filmmaking. (Both, for instance, feature memorably somber dinner scenes inside McDonald’s.) And similar to Hou’s masterpiece A City of Sadness, in which the director narrated Taiwan’s traumatic history through his own autobiographical memories, Yang’s film also threads the political through the familial.

Yet unlike Taiwan’s New Wave directors, who are more directly the historical products of Taiwan’s geopolitical transitions during the 1980s, Yang’s film might be better understood as an Asian American film—an obvious category, perhaps, except for its relative underrepresentation in American culture. While the aesthetics of Tigertail might be reminiscent of Taiwanese arthouse cinema, its industry status more closely aligns with the commercial films of Taiwanese American director Ang Lee. Twenty years ago, a film like Tigertail might have been possible only in independent film circuits, as happened with Lee’s early Taiwanese “Father Knows Best” trilogy. But the fact that Tigertail is being released on Netflix—with no festival hype to back it up—indicates an undeniable shift in the filmmaking landscape: Asian American directors making movies with Asian American themes are actually mainstream now.

Tigertail is ultimately less an ethnographic portrayal of the Taiwanese immigrant story than an American interpretation of the Taiwanese immigrant story. Similarly, Yang is not so much making independent Taiwanese cinema as drawing on its aesthetics to make what feels definitively like a new kind of American cinema. This can be sensed at the very level of the film’s title, which enacts a strange type of translation. Tigertail (not to be confused with Netflix’s recent TV phenomenon Tiger King) is named after its protagonist’s Taiwanese hometown of Huwei (虎尾), whose two characters literally translate into “tiger” and “tail.” Whereas most foreigners would simply refer to Huwei as, well, “Huwei,” Yang’s transliteration generates a new version of his father’s hometown entirely—one that draws on his Taiwanese roots to address an Anglophone audience.

Yang started writing the script four years ago—before the spate of popular Asian films that now includes Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Parasite. But its arrival only affirms the truth in Bong Joon-ho calling the Oscars a “local prize.” If America is now increasingly a potential empire in decline, then perhaps places such as South Korea and Taiwan might begin to share the global cultural spotlight. And in the midst of a pandemic that has made far-flung locales feel closer than ever, such reflections of our shared intimacies might not actually be a bad thing.

Jane Hu is a writer and Ph.D. candidate living in Oakland.