In the opening moments of Tigertail — a new foreign-language Netflix film written and directed by Master of None co-creator Alan Yang — a young boy runs through rice fields in desperate search for what may be a hallucination of his deceased father and estranged mother. Like many of the memories colorfully illustrated in pained and grained resolution, this memory is overlapped with expositional narration, laying out the backstory and motivation of an aging Taiwanese man (Tzi Ma) trying to reconcile with the sacrifices he made in pursuit of the American Dream.
We get to know Pin-Jui at several key moments throughout his life, mainly as a young adult (Lee Hong-Chi) trying to figure out how he can possibly move to America and find work that will support him and his mother (Yang Kuei-mei), who toils with him in a dangerous factory for barely enough money to get by. At times, we flash forward to Pin-Jui’s life much later in America as a “successful” father of two kids, including his daughter (Christine Ko), who as an adult is now facing some of the same decisions and potential mistakes Pin-Jui made in his own youth.
At its best moments, Tigertail is a devastating story about how the wrong choices can poison not just our own lives and happiness, but also the same for those around us. It’s a biting commentary on how the American Dream itself can be a hollow hallucination, built upon wishful thinking. Unfortunately, that same wishful thinking translates to the film itself when it comes to some of the acting, writing, and a few mixed messages.
This is a personal story for Alan Yang, who has explored the generational differences between immigrant parents and their children quite well before in the Netflix series Master of None. Whereas in that memorable episode, “Parents,” the kids are challenged to question those who raised them for insight into their own lives, Tigertail replaces much of that surprise similarity with blame and bitterness directed toward the parents.
It’s unclear if this was the intention, but the film is so rushed when it’s just starting to click, yet so drawn out when the relevant points have been made, the entire picture ends up feeling like an indulgent experiment instead of a well-realized time machine. Too many filler scenes are crammed in to explain or contextualize story details that could have been more organically revealed as a means to push the story forward. And an over-reliance on narration prevents the film from feeling as immersive and engaging as it looks.
Perhaps the exception to all this is the middle section, which primarily focuses on Pin-Jui and his wife Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li and later Fiona Fu) attempting to make a home in America. Unlike the segments set in the present day, the writing for these characters feels energetic and believable, to the point where it seems like a missed opportunity for the film to shift so much of its focus on the before and after of these set pieces. Though it’s particularly refreshing to see sympathy and affection given to Zhenzhen, a character who in other films of this genre would be more quickly dismissed or patronized. Instead, she grows over the course of the film into what might be its strongest player.
By contrast, Tzi Ma and Christine Ko’s dialogue in the present-day scenes comes off as stilted, unbalanced, and forced, weighed down by a crushing dread that overpowers their relationship, which we learn very little about in as much detail (release the Yang cut?). This changes for a moment when Tzi Ma is given a chance to stretch his legs during an exchange with an old childhood friend and lost love (Joan Chen), but then the film whiplashes to the parental drama that just doesn’t quite have the same emotional precision to match the film’s more poignant pairings.
Tigertail certainly wears its arthouse aspirations as an aesthetic. It’s the kind of Netflix film with all the right piano pieces to move audiences who are willing to empathize or relate with the kinds of stories cinema has often ignored. It just hits a few too many of the wrong notes along the way. Still, the fact that millions of people can watch this film right now, practically instantly, is important to recognize considering how rare it used to be for film lovers outside of urban areas to enjoy independent films at this scale. It’s just a shame Tigertail doesn’t offer them a more cohesive symphony.