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Monday, September 25, 2023

Tigertail: Of love and pain in the lives of immigrants

Many in South Asia have dreamt of migrating to the United States in search of money, fame and love. But immigration can be a hard experience for both the first and second generations. A new Netflix movie - Tigertail - helps us understand the pain and anguish. Must watch for sensitive film watchers.

Many – If not most – across the world have at one or the other point dreamt of immigrating to the United States in search of money, fame and love. But how life treats these new immigrants is often less understood. A little heard film – Tigertail- on Netflix help understand that.

Somewhere buried in the ninety minutes of the new Netflix original film “Tigertail” is an extraordinary movie. The debut feature of prolific TV producer and writer Alan Yang details the immigrant experience his own father faced when moving to the states in the 1950s from Taiwan. The movie is a stirring portrait of what life is like for an immigrant and how tough early life is. With the characters speaking mostly Mandarin and Taiwanese, “Tigertail” is part of a new trend of Asian films from the states, following the breakout success of last year’s “The Farewell”.

First-generation immigrant struggle

Both “The Farewell” and “Tigertail” show us the Asian American immigrant struggles and in a sense both these movies can be two sides of the same coin. The latter focuses on the plight of the first generation and the sacrifices they make for the sake of their family.

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The far superior “The Farewell”, on the other hand, looked at the second generation of immigrants and the listless feeling of never quite fitting in the east and the west. Both art products are exquisitely crafted, featuring some incredible performances and a rousing score. But as skilled as Yang is at making his emotionally charged picture speak to the audience, he lacks the hard-hitting nature of “The Farewell”. While “Tigertail” is earnest in its attempts at capturing the struggle of its characters it isn’t as intimate and nuanced as “The Farewell” was.

The film is split between two timelines, the past and present of Pin-Jiu (Hong Chi-Lu) a boy from a small city in Huwei (translated as “Tiger Tail”) in Taiwan. After the death of his father, he goes to live with his grandparents where he tends to the rice fields. It is also where he meets his childhood sweetheart Yuan Lee. However, circumstances force them apart and soon Pin-Jiu finds himself working in a factory.

Despite reconnecting once again with Yuan, our protagonist is forced to cut his ties with her and move to America in an arranged marriage with his boss’s daughter to better provide for his ailing mother. Years later Pin-Jiu (played by Tzi Ma) now has a daughter of his own getting married who he is struggling to connect with, finding her life altogether different from the hard one he left. The story as simple enough as it is, will likely connect with many adults overseas who have left loved ones behind to provide a better life for their family.

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Flashbacks can be distracting 

One of the best things about “Tigertail” is that although it continues the trend of stoic Asian dads, it provides enough backstory for you to find the character more complex. Pin-Jiu isn’t always someone you’d root for and find sympathetic but Tzi Ma’s acting keeps him a character you understand well. The flashbacks which are meant to make a simplistic story more interesting border on being too distracting given that the flashback storyline is far more interesting.

Hong Chi-Lu plays the younger version of the main character, and despite him having far less acting expertise than Ma, he makes his character seem energetic and appealing. This is in stark juxtaposition to Ma’s performance who carries an air of malaise throughout the film that underlines how special an actor he is. Despite “Tigertail” not hitting all the notes, the movie really feels like a highlight of Ma’s illustrious Hollywood career.

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It’s a shame really that the movie feels like a slog at times and is almost depressingly dull when showing the present version of the characters. “Tigertail” loses quite a lot of momentum by the time it reaches the third act not quite ending as brilliantly as it starts. And although Yang considers it deeply personal film, having modelled it after his own dad’s journey, the film feels too lifeless at times to truly allow you to immerse yourself in the worlds Yang is showing.

Netflix brings in diverse audiences

Streaming has made cross border dissemination of films much easier, paving way for studios to produce the kinds of stories that wouldn’t have made otherwise. “Tigertail” is the perfect example of why that gamble can pay off. Although it is focused singularly on the experience of early Asian immigrants to the states, it has enough resonance to appeal to viewers from all walks of life. Yang’s first venture into film-making isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s easy to overlook when there’s so much heart and soul in what is clearly a passion project.