Crafting a story around the notion of emptiness is a double edged sword, in that the dour mindset often feels counter productive and it is hard to make such a void captivating. Tigertail has a hopefulness that offsets the first of these obstacles but the second is constantly there, infecting a film deeply in tune with its characters but unable to push through the white noise of loneliness to really connect them to an audience.
Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma/Hong-Chi Lee) is a Taiwanese immigrant in America. He has found his place and a place for his family but the memories of Taiwan, the things he left behind and the man he was still linger in his mind, affecting the relationships he has with those around him, mainly his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). The question of if he can figure out who he is now looms large in his mind as he wastes away the days drinking tea and thinking about good days long gone.
Interspersed with flashbacks to a Pin-Jui this old man would scarcely recognise in a place that is long gone, director and writer Alan Yang has crafted an immigrant story you rarely see, the one about deep seated regret. While the opportunity of a better life looms large in Pin-Jui’s mind, it is the memory of a Taiwan that, despite its rough edges, poverty and menial possessions brought love, family and simple beauties. The grainy quality of his memories almost seem pleasant when compared to the clean, crisp emptiness of his life now.
In fact Yang’s film feels more at home in memories of the past than in the present where most of the film’s conflicts lie. As his memories get closer to the life he leads, the things that make Pin-Jui unqiue disappear. A life full of music, dancing and first loves, accompanied with a varied and lively score is replaced with the same 3 strings and a life of self-imposed isolation. Oftentimes these glimpses into the past feel too good to be true, the kind of rosy nostalgia we can be forgiven for looking back but Pin-Jui’s antagonism towards those around him and the man we know him to be never truly mesh until the films final moments. It might be a strong finish but it relies heavily on a film clinging to small moments within the bleak nothingness.
Such moments are quietly elevated by Ma and Ko, who not only provide dimension to characters who are ultimately more fleshed out through flashbacks and cleverly framed comparisons. A quiet meal between father and daughter says more about their similarities than their differences even though they are the only ones not to notice because of Yang’s minimal but carefully framed close-ups. Ko in particular makes use of her limited screen time, a strong, prideful woman who is hiding long festering inadequacies because of Pin-Jui’s parenting and their distance and similarities.
Here the notion of the American Dream is deconstructed and shown for the con it ended up being for most. The notion of finding happiness and prosperity through hard work and determination is something drilled into Pin-Jui, that emotions play no part in a man doing right by his family. The toxicity of this mindset, of hiding yourself and your past life might well seem benign but Yang sees it for what it is, a unwitting byproduct of being let down by a dream that didn’t quite go as expected.
Although carefully structured, with a glorious final shot, Tigertail is a plodding film that meanders through a slim plot, one intent on highlighting the oftentimes damaging effects of immigration on 2nd generation kids and the difficulty connecting with parents whose childhoods seem like a distant idea in a land they cannot hope to understand. Yang looks to bridge that gap in a film more important for its ambition that its overall structure. This is a story that could apply to many immigrants in that, a new life doesn’t mean you don’t miss the old one, especially if here, the old one was more vibrant and emotional than the lifeless one our regrets can turn life into.