Ten minutes into Alan Yang’s Tigertail (streaming on Netflix), a daughter drives her father home from the airport. He had just returned to America after visiting his hometown Taiwan and his place bore witness to a hasty departure: unclean dishes lay at the sink. The daughter offers to help but he promptly declines. She can do it quickly she reassures but to no avail. He will do it, he asserts. Moments later, he cleans his dishes alone as she returns to her place and does the same. This resistance to let her help — to almost forbid her from cleaning the mess he has made — functions as a metaphor in a film about dysfunctional filial relationships, the source of which can be traced to an emotionally absent father.
Yang, famed for co-creating Master of None (also streaming on Netflix), had touched upon a similar theme in the second episode of the series’ first season. Titled Parents, it depicts the distant relationship Dev (Aziz Ansari) and his friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) — both second-generation Americans — share with their respective parents. While Dev feels under appreciated by his American-Indian father, Brian’s monosyllabic conversations with his Taiwanese-American father barely hold together. The thirty-minute Emmy winning episode underlines the similarity of the immigrant story, chalks the chasm between immigrant parents and their children, and measures it not in terms of two generations divided by time but space. It also uses comedy as a crutch to acknowledge and appreciate the lacuna, offering a middle ground of sorts at the end. In his directorial debut, Yang centres his narrative around a similar reticent immigrant parent but his gaze is closer, the hurt feels more personal. He lends context to this stereotype. The fulfillment of the American Dream is not used as a starting point but is placed in the middle — a silent second-act in a three-part bildungsroman — where the protagonist looks at it longingly in his youth and later is looked at as a byproduct of it.
A young Pin-Jui (Hong Chi-Lee) grows up in Taiwan during the 60s with his grandparents. The early demise of his father necessitates his mother to fend for them, and for him to stay away from her. Caged by nostalgia even before he had made enough memories, he sees his parents everywhere, even in the empty fields. He does not find them but makes a friend instead, Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang). Later, his mother’s job in a factory allows them to live together and by a stroke of luck he reunites with Yuan. Their friendship blossoms into an affecting adolescent romance, filled with midnight dances, stolen kisses and shared love for Otis Redding (there is a particularly lovely scene where they both sing one of Ottis’ songs post-coitus, as if overwhelmed with the act they can only fall back upon borrowed words). Their story gets upended when Pin-Jui takes up an opportunity that enables him to go to America. He marries someone else, leaving behind his native land and love without a farewell or an apology.
His arrival in New York is when the American Dream reveals the burden it entails; the cruel cost and the sacrifices it demands peek behind the glossy veneer. The physical hardships for survival lead to a painful circularity of life — he waits on the store, cleans it, closes it for the day and repeats the same act — where the momentum to take every step forward requires beginning from the start all over again. The clammy flat they stay in, the paucity of space bring the emotional gulf between the couple to the fore: his marriage becomes painfully functional and from strangers they become estranged to one another. His love for music and dancing, both derived from watching American films, seem flimsy distractions. The country was nothing like he had imagined it to be.
Tigertail constantly flits between different time frames, and when we meet an older Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) returning home with his daughter, he shares little or no relationship with her. He is divorced and stays alone in the US. This narrative technique operates as a ruse wherein it not just highlights the difference in Pin-Jui’s personality but also locates the cause behind the effect: the reason for his stoicism. An old man now, he is less filled with regrets and pained more by the difficult realisation that he might be living the American Dream but this life was not what he had dreamt of, that what he thought he was leaving behind and what he did leave behind had not added up. It is this disillusionment — so generic and yet culturally specific — that defines the immigrant experience.
Titled Family Movie during conception, Tigertail is the director’s ode to his father. The latter (who did the voiceover for the beginning and the end) had immigrated to the Bronx from central Taiwan in the 70s much like the protagonist. In an interview with The Vanity Fair, Yang admits that making the film brought them closer, and it does unfold as his token of gratitude for his father’s sacrifices; an acknowledgement of not knowing him better. In the same interview, he regards the film as his love letter to everyone in his family and to the idea of being Taiwanese American. He is telling everyone’s story as he makes a case for the emotionally unavailable Asian parent as well as for the misgivings of their children. Looking at with both experience and empathy, Yang makes a case for the silences he received and offered by weaving his defence and belated insight into the strained relationship shared by Pin-Jui and his daughter Angela (Christine Ko).
Angela’s grouse against her father had its roots in never seeing him being proud of her, in always falling short of the staggering expectations he had from her, and in the realisation that in her constant effort to make him like her, she had become self-absorbed and closed, just like him. He might have fulfilled the Dream but had passed the burden on her to sustain it. Her silence echoed dejection. He, who had suffered the way he did and left more things than she ever will, viewed her one with the city: alien. His silence echoed bitterness. A story spread across two generations, Tigertail stresses that struggles might not overlap but some experiences do. Pin-Jui opens his heart and tells his daughter it broke years ago when she confides in him about the same. That night they both washed unclean dishes together, without resistance or resentment. Pain served as their meeting ground.
On receiving the Emmy, Yang had said, “There’s 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian-Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong.” Citing the racist caricature from Sixteen Candles as the only popular representation of the Asian immigrant in films was both an anecdote and an outcry. Four years later, a film on the immigrant experience and the many scars they gather in the journey, with characters largely conversing in Mandarin and acquired by Netflix for 190 countries to see is his rebuttal.