How wide is the distance between generations? Between past and present? Between the lives of parents and their children? In the stories we tell about our families and histories, how much is left unsaid? Spanning decades and continents in a couple’s journey from Taiwan to the United States, Tigertail, a poignant family drama debuting on Netflix on April 10, traverses a vast territory of things left unspoken.
The film is written, produced, and directed by Alan Yang, who won an Emmy for his exquisitely comedic and heartfelt writing about the Asian-American experience on Master of None, which he also co-created. The narrative draws loosely on Yang’s own family history: like Tigertail’s protagonist Pin-Jiu, Yang’s father grew up in rural Taiwan and worked in a factory before eventually emigrating to the United States. Much of the plot is fictionalized, but Yang’s personal connection is palpable; everything has the feeling of a story passed down in fragments — a past reconstructed from pieces.
Moving back and forth in time and place, Tigertail weaves a complicated tale of Taiwanese immigration and the pain of the past. The story is narrated from the vantage point of Pin-Jiu (Tzi Ma) in his middle age, though the first scenes, with the fields of Taiwan glinting in the sun and the atmosphere suffused with lyrical loneliness, are an immersive view of his youth.
Deftly deployed by Yang, the voiceovers from Pin-Jiu become an important device — Pin-Jiu recalls memories and expresses intense emotions in his narration, but he rarely says anything aloud in conversations with his family. This inability to communicate quickly reveals itself to be the film’s core focus. It is not just about the stories we tell about our pasts, but the stories we do not tell — the suffering we suppress and the pain we conceal.
“We live separate lives.”
Pin-Jiu’s past is juxtaposed with his present inability to connect to his adult daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). The two seem utterly unable to share anything with each other. Whether their conversations are in Mandarin, Taiwanese, or English, the silence between them is universally devastating. In their first scene together, Angela picks him up from the airport after his trip to Taiwan for his mother’s funeral, which she was not even informed about. He says, by way of explanation, “You didn’t really know her,” and it seems she barely knows her own father either.
Both in voiceovers and flashbacks, Pin-Jiu as a young man (portrayed by Lee Hong-Chi), is decidedly more animated: he recounts the joyous moments he spent with Yuan, his childhood friend and first love, before leaving Taiwan. Their tender interactions and laughter-filled dates feel like moments out of a dreamy romance. Yet, this story is one of dreams deferred — fantasies left behind. In Taiwan, Pin-Jiu and his mother work long hours in a dangerous factory, and he hopes to one day be able to go to America. Soon, he makes a life-altering choice: he sacrifices the woman he loves for an arranged marriage that will allow him to pursue his desperate desire to go to America, leaving everything he knows behind to move to New York with his new wife, Zhenzhen (played by Kunjue Li, and then Fiona Fu in the later years).
The scenes of immigrant life feel familiar as the young couple struggles to adjust to their unromantic reality in New York, and Pin-Jiu tries to save money to bring his mother over to the states — long days, hard work, lack of money, and cultural isolation. These are collective features of many immigrant stories of leaving one’s home for an unfamiliar country. Despite this, Yang still manages to take an experience shared by many, and infuse it with particularity and intimacy. Yang captures a portrait of a family that does not seem to know how to be a family, and it can become extraordinarily frustrating to watch these characters fail at even talking to one another. Yet Yang uses their silence to reveal all that is left unspoken in tales of immigrant experiences, and the limits of what we share with one another. Some things get lost in translation, and some things get lost between generations, but much more is purposefully left out — it’s simply too painful to even attempt to express certain memories.
Throughout Tigertail, each character finds themselves surrounded by family, but still utterly alone. The dialogue throughout is sparse and understated, yet the actors deliver powerful performances in the silence, as their averted eyes and small sighs say everything they need to. Cinematographer Nigel Bluck’s camerawork and Daniel Haworth’s editing allow us to linger on the empty spaces and quiet moments. Silence is the film’s repeated refrain. Upon first settling in New York, Pin-Jiu and Zhenzhen try to make the relationship work, and find music in repetitive days of cleaning, cooking, laundering, and laboring. But soon enough, the little piano he buys collects dust and is covered by the clutter of daily life. Zhenzhen, swallowing any words of discontent, gives up her dreams of teaching to raise the family. It’s not until years later that she finally reaches her tipping point and breaks the silence: she announces she wants a divorce, and wishes to be allowed to chase her own desires without always being spoken for by her husband. The film juxtaposes the collapse of their marriage with Angela’s failing relationship with her boyfriend, and Angela and her father each eat in isolation as they stare off into the distance — their unspoken pain being one of the few things they seem to have in common.
Perhaps the film’s most profound accomplishment is the richness of the empathy it offers its characters while it examines the nuances of the past from multiple perspectives. There is no villain here — no clear aggressor in any relationship, or massive menacing force to overcome — just the walls they put up between one another, blaming each other for not talking, listening, or understanding.
At a Chinese New Year’s party, a father and daughter sit side by side drinking tea, mirroring their mannerisms but not facing one another fully — another instance of talking without really talking. Finally though, something pierces through, and Pin-Jiu begins to tell his story to Angela. We learn she never knew about Yuan, never understood the life he left behind, and never heard about the joy and pain that viewers got to see.
In the final moments, they journey to Taiwan together. He shows her where he grew up, where he worked, and where he spent his formative moments — making all these pieces of his past a part of Angela’s story too. To the credit of Yang’s subtle writing and directing, Tigertail does not attempt to cram in big moments or overly dramatic statements at its climax. Even the breakthroughs are understated, and the ending, like the preceding ninety minutes, is rather quiet and meditative. Yet, it is clear something has changed. Pin-Jiu and Angela talk with one another. They walk together. They let each other in. Even in the final shot, the camera pulls back and we sit in silence once again. We can appreciate that their wordlessness now implies something different: a shared understanding and respect for one another.
Yang has revealed that Tigertail’s original working title was simply, Family Movie. But while rooted in the personal, it also moves far beyond one individual family’s experiences, telling a powerful tale of the Asian immigrant experience and the massive upheavals parents endure in search of a better future. Tigertail feels immensely timely in its heartwarming love letter to Asian-American communities, who are facing unprecedented crises and prejudices in these strange times. It calls for empathy and understanding, for opening up and finding connection, and for taking solace in one another. Ultimately, it reminds us that everyone has stories to tell, and everyone deserves the opportunity to be heard — to be allowed to let out their passions, pains, and pasts with a roar.