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Tigertail is the Relatable Immigration Film I've Been Waiting For

Alan Yang's debut film is a window into his father's life, as well as my own

I almost didn’t watch Tigertail.

When Netflix released Alan Yang’s debut film on April 10, enough buzz had circulated in my circles to pique my curiosity. Relevant subject matter, reputable creator, and solid reviews—these factors drew me to the film, and I was eager to watch an Asian-American immigration story that I would likely relate to. You can imagine my surprise and disappointment when influential voices in my life deemed it “one of the worst films they’d ever seen.” I briefly contemplated whether my 91 minutes was better spent on two episodes of Tiger King instead.

When I finally watched the film, I understood some of the critiques I had heard. The accents are a mess: the protagonist’s wife Zhenzhen, for example, grew up in Taiwan, but both actresses (Li Kunjue and Fiona Fu) that play the character speak Mandarin with a mainland accent. If you didn’t notice, just imagine watching The Crown only to hear Prince Philip sounding like a Bostonian. Now you understand my headache.

The film also runs too short for a story that unfolds in loosely connected vignettes. Extra runtime would have given key scenes more time to establish context, develop characters, and smoothen transitions. Actors would have more space to breathe nuance and complexity into their characters, rather than trying to capture an entire personality in just a handful of [too] succinct lines. The story speaks like a monotone history teacher, recounting events as fact but never providing much excitement or drama. We are left wanting more.

Then I thought, isn’t that life?

As the film weaves between Pin Rui’s (Tzi Ma) past and present, I think of my own memories. I can recall the key moments in broad strokes and assign importance to such episodes, but the details are hazy. Most days began and ended with inconsequence, now lost in a sea of gray matter.

I also think of my parents’ memories—stories set in a faraway world I can hardly imagine—and the film photographs of their adolescence that accompanied tales of hardship and struggle. Tigertail is based on the life of Yang’s father, and Yang cleverly chose to juxtapose digital footage of Pin Rui’s present with flashbacks shot on 16mm, honoring his father’s past with the same nostalgic, grainy filter I apply to my own parents’ recollections. As it turns out, many of our experiences bear uncanny similarities, and I found Tigertail’s greatest strength to be its relatability.

All Too Relatable

When the film opened with a young Pin Rui, left at his grandparents’ place by a mother who cannot afford to support him, I understood his pain. I must have missed my parents dearly when I, too, was left at my grandparents’ house at the age of two; hundreds of miles away, my mom and dad toiled to find a stable income before bringing me home.

As I watched Pin Rui scold his daughter Angela for crying, repeating his own grandmother’s advice that crying doesn’t solve anything, I returned to my eight-year-old self: when forgetting my piece at a piano recital was my worst nightmare; when we drove home from a piano lesson on a stormy night, and the only thing louder than the rain drops was my father’s harsh words; how he didn’t work so hard to earn money so I can waste it by not practicing; how I was weak for crying, and how that only made me cry harder.

When I saw Pin Rui decide to throw away his favorite record, I thought of how my dad dabbled in guitar in college, but quickly shelved it to dedicate his time to engineering. I recalled him belting along to The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and I still bet he would have loved to play the guitar solo himself. He periodically suggests I learn, because he projects onto me the passions he never had a chance to pursue. Likewise, Pin Rui projects his musical passions onto Zhenzhen and buys her an old keyboard, assuming she would like the same things he does.

Pin Rui’s inability to see past his own needs and preferences leads to the dissolution of their marriage, which limped on for years while Zhenzhen waited for their children to grow up and leave the house. I remember how my mom started to contemplate divorce in ’07. It was not until my little brother started college in 2018 that my mom finally pulled the trigger.

I understood Pin Rui’s dejection when his mother refused his invitation to America. I had heard it in my mother’s voice—when my grandmother refused to come live with us in America because the country is foreign, the people are different, the streets are too quiet, and the language is too alien.

I think of my other grandma, who passed away last year. Her shack of a home always smelled a bit funny when we visited, and when we spoke, our conversations played like poorly scripted dialogue. Over 50 years, my father had scaled a mountain of social strata. Although I speak fluent Mandarin, it had been hard to understand a woman who lived for 80 years at the foot when I was born near its summit. Angela (Christine Ko) didn’t know her grandmother, and I barely knew mine.

A Shared Experience

We discover that Alan Yang named the film “tigertail” in reference to 虎尾, the township in Taiwan where his father lived as a child. The film is ultimately a tale about homecoming, and in its final scenes, we see how father and daughter finally begin to connect when Pin Rui shows Angela the backdrops to his childhood stories—ultimately arriving at his childhood home.

I will always remember when my father brought me to his childhood home. My “tigertail” is somewhere in the outskirts of Yanzhou, China. No screenplay could have described the gravity of this moment, the haunting shadow cast by these dilapidated bricks, or the emotions I felt as I stood in silence. No scene could have captured the emotions my father must have felt, returning after so long with two sons raised in America.

The entrance to my father’s childhood home in Yanzhou, China.

Tigertail came close, with one major difference: my father didn’t cry. To this day, I have never seen a tear on his face.

Alan Yang’s Tigertail is no masterpiece, but its bare-bones structure echoes the monotonies of human life and captures the emptiness resulting from a generation of strife. It displays an inconsistent but carefully crafted series of events that reveal Pin Rui’s story in unflattering realism, with little embellishment and dramatization. These qualities may be considered weaknesses in a traditional film, but they also afforded me the space to fill in gaps with my own experiences. It became a new kind of film entirely—the first to accurately capture so many of my experiences as a first-generation Asian-American.

Father and daughter, finally connecting | Image courtesy of Netflix

In the closing shot, the camera zooms out to frame father and daughter within the open window of Pin Rui’s old house, revealing within the abandoned rubble that new life has begun to grow. It reminds us of the importance of our roots: how our history inevitably shapes and contextualizes all that we do and all that we are. It reminds us that, no matter how empty we feel and how difficult it can be to connect with others, one can start by opening the window to our shared experiences—and encouraging others to look through.

To Alan Yang: thank you for sharing.