A person’s past is the foundation to the life they build. If one denies their past, they cannot truly know themself. If one keeps their past from their child, the child can never truly know the parent.
This is a situation that likely gives rise to the stereotype of the stoic or emotionally cold Asian parent, especially immigrant parents, especially fathers. These parents believe that they are shielding their children from the difficulty of the past, their past, but in so doing they make it difficult for their children to connect with them.
Perhaps this is a repetition of the dynamic they had as children with their own parents. Perhaps it is their own resentment of the easier lives they have given to their children through their sacrifices. Most likely, it is a combination of the above and much more.
In the new Netflix movie Tigertail, writer-director Alan Yang (Parks and Recreation, Master of None) tackles these issues broadly and how they relate to his own life more specifically. While not an autobiography, the film is built around the story of his connection as an adult, with his father and his Taiwanese heritage. He has fictionalized a personal family story to get to the underlying theme of sacrifice, isolation and the misunderstandings between generations, which prevent them from seeing how alike they are.
“[This film is about] family; more specifically, my family,” Yang explains, “the ways we talk and don’t talk, the ways we show and don’t show love, the ways in which my parents were raised in a completely alien culture and then raised my sister and me in a culture completely alien to them.”
Tigertail tells the present day story and the history of Pin-Jui/Grover, portrayed by Tzi Ma (Mulan , The Farewell) in the present and Hong-Chi Lee (Thanatos, Drunk and City Of Rock) as a young man. He emmigrates from Taiwan to the United States, seeking a better life. As an older man living in New York, he is divorced and has trouble relating to Angela (Christine Ko) his adult daughter. He is closed off, unemotional and unable to connect with his daughter who has only known a good life, growing up in the United States.
In his mid-20s in Taiwan, Pin-Jui is a vibrant handsome young man, who works beside his mother at a factory job he is not good at and he does not like. He dreams of moving to the United States, but he lacks the means. The bright spot in his life is Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), the only friend he had as a child growing up in the countryside with his grandmother. When they reconnect in the city, they dance, they run out on restaurant tabs, they fall in love. Their future is uncertain, however, because he is a poor factory worker and she comes from a well-to-do family.
Pin-Jui’s boss at the factory offers him the opportunity to move to America, if he marries his daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li). He grabs the chance, somewhat hesitantly, and abandons the woman he truly loves. The life of an immigrant in New York is hard. The couple barely know each other and have little in common. Pin-Jui buries himself in work, while Zhenzhen struggles with isolation and loneliness. We see how life grinds him down from a dashing young romantic to a closed off older man.
“To say the film is personal in nature would be a vast understatement,” Yang explains. “It was inspired by a trip I took to Taiwan with my father.
“I had no connection to my heritage. I quit Chinese school after one session. I grew up in a blue-collar suburban town that was largely white, Latinx, and black. I had few, if any, Asian friends. I didn’t even like eating rice until a few years ago.
“But to be fair, the emptiness at the core of my Taiwanese identity wasn’t entirely of my own making. My parents never shared much with us about their lives in Taiwan. My dad was particularly withholding—a serious, intellectual, fiercely proud man who had been raised to believe that to show vulnerability was to show weakness. And so he refrained from telling us stories about the past. About his dreams and his failures, his ambitions and his regrets. About the country that was his first home and his first love. That all changed when we took that trip together four years ago.”
Tigertail explodes or at the very least reframes the stereotype of the Asian immigrant parent, who lacks emotion and drives their children to succeed at any cost. While we see that version in the older Pin-Jui, we also see the dancing, romantic young man, who is crushed over the years by a life of disappointment. He did not find the success he sought in America and left behind the love of his life in Taiwan. His grandmother tells a young Pin-Jui never to cry because it shows weakness, a lesson he passes along to, or more accurately, inflicts upon his own young daughter when she stumbles at a piano recital.
“I think in the past, a lot of Asian characters have been portrayed as inscrutable and unemotional and sort of unknowable, and I think that contributes to a dehumanization of Asian people,” Yang says in an interview with The Atlantic. “People talk about teeming hordes of people in China as just faceless masses, but no, we’re all individuals. We all have incredible life stories; we all have rich pasts.”
The genesis of the movie comes from a trip to Taiwan which the director took with his father. Yang had not visited since he seven years old and now as an adult, he learned more about his father’s life than he had in all the years prior to this visit. With the seed idea and with a new found interest in his father’s history and his own Taiwanese heritage, Yang began working on the script.
“This film is my dream of my father’s dream of the Taiwan of his past,” the director continues. “We shot in the same sugar factory where he and my grandmother worked, toiling for years, performing manual labor to save enough money for him to go to America.”
The idea of an all-Asian film in three languages — Taiwanese, Mandarin and English — was a long shot at the time. This was before Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell made the idea of an American produced film about and starring Asians and Asian-Americans a viable prospect. Even with those films being hailed as the breakthrough of Asian-American cinema, continued success is not guaranteed. “We have a lot of ground to make up and the next step for me is a range of roles and a range of Asian American lead characters that we haven’t seen before,” Yang tells Huffpost. “You know, we haven’t seen an Asian American Indiana Jones, we haven’t seen an Asian American Furiosa, we haven’t seen an Asian American Ron Burgundy. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re going to get there and I can’t wait.”
The difference between the younger and older Pin-Jui is told in dialog and performance, but Yang also shows the emotional chasm between the two times in his life visually. “Hopefully how we shot and costume designed it conveys the jarring nature of his own existence and how he’s split between worlds,” says the director in a Hollywood Reporter interview. “The Taiwan parts are saturated and shot on 16mm, so it’s really vibrant and alive and handheld, and then in modern day we shot it with a digital camera on a tripod and took color out of the frame, so it’s starkly realistic, showing the drabness of everyday in contrast to his memory.”
“We shot in the same mausoleum where my grandma’s ashes lie, listened to the same tape of solemn Buddhist chants playing over and over again as we set up our equipment,” he recalls.
When the older Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu) tells Pin-Jui that she wants a divorce, she says that he is broken inside. Yang shows us, symbolically the moment that this break happens. In their happy, younger days, we see Pin-Jui and Yuan dancing to song which is all 60s era pop with a Taiwanese woman singing lyrics in Mandarin. Yang took his time finding the right track which would evoke the exciting feeling of this time in their lives, connect the couple to their homeland, and dangle the lure of opportunity in the sound of American pop music. “I was searching for months to find the perfect song and this is while I was writing it. This is how early this was and I knew it was perfect [when I found it], so much so that it’s not on Spotify or Apple music or anything,” Yang told The Moveable Fest, “but it’s on YouTube, so I put the YouTube link into the script so anyone who read the script could put that song on while they read that scene.
“I wanted to find a song that encapsulated an East meets West feel because Pin-Jui, obviously grew up in an Asian country, but he has dreams of going to America, so that song symbolizes his desire to go to the West and experience it and his love for American pop culture.”
The song is “Person Who Stole My Heart” by Yao Su-Yong & The Telstars Combo. Yang shows us the album cover, a young woman strumming guitar against a bright red background, in the scene where the happy young couple dances in a bar. The next time we see the album is years later as Pin-Jui and a pregnant Zhenzhen are moving out of their first, dingy New York apartment. His life has turned him into a sad, buttoned-down, sullen man, no longer the joking, handsome guy, dancing with his love. She hands him a milk crate with a few LPs and asks if he wants to pack them. He flips through and sees the familiar cover, pauses for a moment, then hands her the crate telling her that she can throw them out. In that moment, we see him throw away his old life, his dreams and any hope he may have still held. He breaks inside as he breaks with his past.
Though he has years of experience as a writer-producer for television and has directed and handful of episodes, this was Yang’s first time in a feature director’s chair, in addition to being the writer and producer of the film. “My editor [Daniel Haworth] was like, ‘Man, you bit off a lot with this one. It’s in a different language, it’s period, it’s a drama, it’s your first film.’ Man, when you say it like that, I seem crazy!” says Yang. “One of the first things I loved about TV is how collaborative it is. I had phenomenal collaborators on this movie as well, but when you’re writing, directing and producing and all that, creatively, it’s all riding on your shoulders. It was appropriate for this movie because it was so personal.”
An example of Yang’s embrace of collaboration is his description of working out a key lunch scene between Angela and her father. “Christine Ko deserves a co-writing credit,” he explained to Variety, “Because in talking about and rehearsing the scene, she sent me an email saying, ‘I just feel there’s a little more digging we can do to make this as resonant as possible.’
“She came up with a few ideas to make it not just about her husband leaving, but the entire history she’s had with her dad. She’s had a father her whole life but hasn’t felt like it; she’s never known how to talk to him. They don’t tell each other they love each other. All of that came out of conversations I had with Christine.”
Angela is Yang’s avatar in the film. They are not one and the same, but she represents a second or even third generation of children of immigrants and a common struggle they experience. Angela gets the opportunity and shows that it is possible to break through that barrier between parent and child and see that they have more in common than they realize. “That’s why I say making this movie was one of the most personally rewarding experiences of my life. It was also the process of becoming closer to my parents, becoming more accepting of my heritage and hoping that our family can get along better,” Yang explains in the Hollywood Reporter. “The goal is for my family to see some kernel of emotional truth, something they can identify and recognize, and express that to them.”
“It’s my father’s voice you hear in the voiceover that begins and ends the film,” Yang concludes. “I feel a not-insignificant amount of warmth and pride and gratitude knowing that people around the world will hear his voice saying lines he recorded just days removed from another treatment for the cancer he’s been battling, lines that he dutifully translated from English into Mandarin, a language his son never bothered to learn, all because I’m his only son; because I’m family, because despite the fact that he was raised in a culture that taught him not to show affection, he loves his family more than anything, and this is one tangible thing he can do to show that love.”
Tigertail is available to stream now on Netflix.