Tigertail is a film that washes over you with the soft caress of a summer breeze. I don’t remember that last time I watched a movie that felt so quiet and gentle.
Meditative is a word that gets thrown around a lot when describing arthouse films these days, but in this case, it’s an apt description. Tigertail is less about plot than creating moments of idle reflection. Writer-director Alan Yang creates a deeply personal film, loosely based on his own father’s story, to take viewers on a touching multi-generational journey.
Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) is a young Taiwanese factory worker with big dreams. He lives in a small shabby home with his mother, and he’s in love with the beautiful and well-off Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), a woman he knows is out of his league. So, when an opportunity comes knocking, Pin-Jui doesn’t pass it up. He commits to an arranged marriage with his boss’s daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) and leaves Taiwan (and Yuan) behind to live in America.
Pin-Jui has an incredible work ethic, and he spends most of his time at his job in a New York City bodega. All that time away exacerbates the problems in his loveless marriage. As the years go on, Zhenzhen grows to resent his lack of compassion, and once their children are grown she leaves him. Now divorced and alone during his golden years, Pin-Jui (now played by Tzi Ma) must fix the relationship with his adult daughter Angela (Christine Ko) or risk losing her for good.
Tigertail moves along at a sleepy pace, which is fitting because the film has a hypnotic, dreamlike quality. The story unfolds in the present day, but much of it takes place in flashbacks. Cinematographer Nigel Bluck captures the flashbacks with 16mm footage, giving the sequences the look of a hazy, half-remembered memory. The film opens with stunning images of young Pin-Jui running through a sun-kissed field, as we listen to voice-over from Yang’s actual father. This wistful melancholy Yang establishes early on sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
While this movie is full of beautiful shots, it’s not at all flashy. Yang wants to lull you into the quotidian monotony of day-to-day life. Most scenes are very still and sombre, and Pin-Jui’s road to success is anything but glamorous. We understand Pin-Jui’s fierce commitment to providing for his family and Zhenzhen’s growing sense of isolation. This creates a compelling dichotomy where our protagonist does both the right thing and the wrong thing at the same time.
Would I want to sit and have a beer with Pin-Jui? Probably not. He’s stoic, closed-minded, and out of touch with his feelings. But a significant part of this is because of his upbringing. He grew up in a culture that didn’t value sentimentality, and men showing sensitivity was especially frowned upon. Doing the “proper” thing (like marrying for money instead of love) rather than following his feelings left a giant hole in his heart. Now, all these years later, we can sense the rusty shackles of regret weighing on Pin-Jui’s soul.
Ultimately this is a story about growth and change. Angela resents her father for not making her feel loved and supported. There is never any doubt whether Pin-Jui loves his daughter; the problem is his inability to convey those feelings.
Everyone wants to be loved. And I’ve found that one of life’s greatest challenges is accepting that we can’t always receive love in the form that we want it. People show their love in a multitude of ways. For some, it’s saying the words I love you; for others, it’s hugs and kisses; and for people like Pin-Jui, it’s toiling away at his job for decades to provide for his family. In Pin-Jui’s heart, being there for his family is enough declaration.
Accepting that we all communicate love on different wavelengths is something I used to struggle with. Life became easier once I understood that people can’t always express their love in the ways I need. Honestly, it’s easier to drain blood from a stone than to receive shows of affection from people who are unable to provide them.
I’ve been Angela so many times in my life, grasping for acts of love and attention that were never there in the first place. And now, I often fight with not becoming too bitter and jaded. What’s beautiful about a film like Tigertail is that it reminds us not to write-off people who always appear cold or indifferent. Given time and understanding, it’s possible to penetrate their imposing barrier and tune into an emotional wavelength that broadcasts love and warmth to both sides.
Tigertail has its share of rough spots; the story drags in places, there are some flat performances, and a few too many dull exchanges. But Yang approaches the material with so much love and compassion that it makes up for the film’s shortcomings. This thoughtful and tender story takes its time setting you up for he final emotional payoff, and it closes strong, hitting you with a powerful emotional gut-punch in the final frames. Patience, it turns out, is Tigertail’s greatest virtue.