“Tigertail” might not be the feel-good movie you’re yearning for right now, but it is perhaps exactly what’s needed. Written and directed by Alan Yang (“Master of None” and “Little America”),The film is about immigration and all that’s sacrificed in the pursuit of a better life. It depicts Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), a Taiwanese immigrant, as he reflects on his life before setting out to find economic prosperity in America to give his mother a better and safer life. But the journey to America forced him into an arranged marriage with his boss’ daughter, costing him the love of his youth and leaving him divorced with a distant son and an emotionally estranged daughter (Christine Ko).
Flashbacks are spliced through the main storyline, implying shaky foundations. Many narratives that contain both a linearly progressing series of flashbacks and a linear storyline happening in the present are asking for trouble. But Yang uses this structure well by giving each timeline its due and letting them flow into each other purposefully, designing the alternating timelines to better illustrate the contrast between the past and present. The effect is a display of what it means to get the life you pay for.
For example, the movie’s opening contains a scene with Tzi Ma’s character as a young boy on a farm in Taiwan, being told by his grandmother that he talks too much. As a child and a young man, it seems to be all he’s told. Suddenly, the story jumps forward to him as an old man living in America, saying as little as possible with a stoic face that gives away nothing. It’s emblematic of the reserved performance that defines this somber film.
The acting in “Tigertail” is incredible. The love between our young protagonist and his girlfriend in Taiwan is palpable. The silence between the hero in his old age and his daughter is heartbreaking, as are the scenes in which they finally come to say something to one another. It is certainly one of the film’s best qualities.
In both the momentous and the quiet moments of Pin-Jui’s life, the world around him speaks volumes. Yang uses color beautifully both aesthetically and as a subtle communication device. He shows the brilliance of youth with shots of bright green fields in Taiwan as well as prosperity and happiness with deep reds in clothing and restaurants, contrasting it with whites and faded browns that mark the loneliness and dreariness of his life in America.
“Tigertail” is a modern retelling of so many cautionary idioms and tales fashioned to include subjects of immigration and the pursuit of security. It’s a movie about the ensuing heartbreak of sacrificing love for financial stability and how the pain and suffering of that sacrifice can spread from generation to generation.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 19, 2020 e-print edition. Email Ben Linder at [email protected]