Tigertail is an intergenerational story told in mainly in flashbacks. It's about a Taiwanese man, Grover (Pin-Jui) who moves to the United States with a bride he hardly knows. It's not the fairytale place or story he was promised. His wife leaves him and his daughter feels she can't communicate with him. In order to rectify his choices in life, Grover has to find a way to come to terms with his past. It stars Tzi Ma, Christine Ko, Hong-Chi Lee, Yo-Hsing Fang, Fiona Fu, Joan Chen, Kuei-Mei Yang, Cindera Che, and Kunjue Lie. It is written and directed by Alan Yang. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
I have been in awe of Alan Yang's prowess since that first season of Master of None. He has and incredible eye for detail. Yang and cinematographer Nigel Bluck create a gorgeous tapestry with every frame. Yang's visual language is so concrete, he knows what each shot means and his compositions and sequences are like poetry. I found myself moved to silently gasp at scenes and shots throughout the film. There's a sequence I can't get out of my mind that embodies Yang's romantic style.
The young Pin-Jui and Yuan are eating at the fanciest restaurant in their town where the waiter knows they have no money and looks down on them. Yet, through all of this, Pin-Jui cannot take his eyes off Yuan, their love is pure and electric. We feel it with every expression and laugh they share. Then, at the end of the meal, they bolt. The music swells and the movement becomes slow motion and it is one of the most romantic scenes I've ever seen. It's straight out of French New Wave or the Italian masters. Yang wears his European influences on his sleeve throughout and it is so fascinating to see these techniques used well in a modern film.
Yang has the benefit of technology to make the sequences stand out from one another. There is the use of 16mm film for the flashbacks, which creates an aesthetic we would be used to seeing in films of that time. It is a softer palette of color and is so much warmer to the faces and places it contrasts. The present of the story is in the much crisper, harsher digital format. It shows the wear on faces and bodies, the cracks in the foundations. It's an excellent effect used wisely.
Though, with these wonderful techniques of the past, there also comes the hubris in the storytelling. Something feels missing, like there's too much left in the mind of the filmmaker. It's as if Yang hoped we could fully understand his meaning in every scene without the proper cues. There are scenes that feel cut short, that feel out of place, and require extra effort on the part of the viewer to discern meaning. The strained relationship between Grover and Angela comes across in many scenes, but it feels like it takes far too long for them to get at the heart of their issues and even then, the catharsis feels anticlimactic and like it could have been beefed up quite a bit more.
Despite any qualms I may have about the story, the acting is superb. Tzi Ma has been a steadily working character actor for several decades and it's enchanting to watch him sink his immeasurable talents into a lead role. His performance takes place behind his eyes. He takes on the emotional heft of the film with stoicism only showing passion when provoked, but to see him as Grover connect with his long lost love is to see an actor who understands how his character would react to any situation. It's a lovely performance to watch.
Tigertail is an excellent first feature for Alan Yang. It shows off his incredible command of visual language and depth of love for film history. He's a romanic and at some points the narrative gets away from him, but Tigertail is an incredibly lovely film to watch in spite of any flaws. I highly recommend it.