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‘Tigertail’ and the American dream across generations

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I was ecstatic when the trailer for Alan Yang’s “Tigertail” popped up on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago. It isn’t often that a film boasts a phenomenal cast of Asian faces, after all. The two-minute clip possessed everything I ever wanted to see as an Asian-American viewer — representation. I felt seen, and that is still a rare thing for many of us. So, perhaps I subconsciously created high expectations for this film to meet. I wanted it — expected it — to tell the Asian immigrant story I’ve been waiting to see on the screen. 

“Tigertail” is a multi-generational drama that tells the semi-fictional story of writer and director Alan Yang’s Taiwanese-American immigrant parents. We follow the central character, a middle-aged Pin-Jiu, as he reflects on his journey from a small village in Taiwan to the drastically different New York City. As we learn of the trials and tribulations he had to endure to gain his footing in the “land of opportunity,” it becomes clear why he is as unhappy as he is presently. Both his vexation with the course his life has taken in America and the growing cultural and generational boundaries between him and his Americanized children define the strained relationship he has with his daughter Angela. Throughout the film, we only hope that the broken relationship between father and daughter may heal, and that they may finally come to understand each other for who they are — different, but nevertheless family.

At first watch, what really stood out to me was actually the cinematography. If you’re familiar with Wong Kar Wai’s cinematography style, you’ll certainly recognize notes of his influence in this piece. The film opens with a flashback of the central character, a young Pin-Jiu, running through the rice fields during the height of Kuomintang Taiwan. The stunning shots of rural Taiwan and urban Manhattan elegantly breathe the settings to life in a visually appealing and deeply poignant way. The film uses colors to evoke senses and emotions, the greens of the rice fields sharp and almost dreamlike and the reds of the run-down New York apartment gloomy and almost violent. In many ways, the film seems to carry the viewer through colors, as the brightness on screen in the protagonist’s hometown only seems to get dimmer the closer we get to his present loneliness in America.

Unfortunately, I can’t say much else of the film really spoke to me. I felt like the theme of the shattered American dream spoke for the film more than the actual script did. The final cut of the film seemed like it still wasn’t yet sure whether it wanted the main plot to be Pin-Jiu’s journey through the American dream or his relationship with his Americanized daughter. Although his relationship with his daughter does undergo significant change, little of their relationship was even shown on screen until the second half of the film. The first half of the film that focused on Pin-Jiu’s backstory also didn’t contribute to any individual growth. I was quite disappointed that Pin-Jiu didn’t seem to grow in a way that suggested significant change; he merely molded with the patterns of life dealt to him. For example, he didn’t learn to treat his wife better after she protested for divorce; he only learned to deal with the repercussions of his new life apart from her. This presence of two different main stories seems to be a classic case of a richly-plotted film that tried to do too much with too little. While the first half of the film dealt exclusively with Pin-Jiu’s tough transition from Taiwan to America, that narrative seemed abruptly interrupted as we transitioned to the second half of the film, which exclusively looks at his strained relationship with his daughter. 

While some films thrive off surprise and subplots, I think this was a film that would have benefitted from a little more structure that a linear plot would have brought. However, I do think this is a consequence of telling a personal story. We naturally feel we must do our semi-fictional (and thus semi-nonfictional) stories justice by painting the clear picture. When we tell the story of Asian-American immigrants disillusioned by the American dream, we can’t leave out their estrangement from their Americanized children, nor can we leave out the completely different life they had in their hometown before their children which might have influenced — justified, rationalized — their behavior in the new world. Of course Pin-Jiu holds so much resentment within him; he had to leave behind his lover for a sort of arranged marriage to bring him to a country he didn’t even speak the language of. This immigration narrative in itself could take ninety minutes to tell, let alone the narrative of his consequently strenuous relationship with his children who represent the promise of the American dream. 

What the film does do with the father-daughter relationship and the miscommunication that riddles it, though, is worth crediting. Again, I admit there were moments hard to stomach due to poor writing (simply because the relationship hadn’t been developed enough), but the sentiment is there. The awkward tension between Pin-Jiu and his daughter Angela was palpable and certainly very realistic. However, in relationships like this, what is more painful is what is not said. As we learn early on in the film, Pin-Jiu did not grow up in an emotional or expressive environment. His mother never said she loved him — not because she didn’t, but because that simply isn’t how she showed him. Her form of “I love you” was taking the back-breaking role at the factory they worked at so her son could do the easier work and preserve his health. Even when Pin-Jiu left Taiwan for America, during his last farewell to his mother, the two did not exchange any sort of physical affection. She did not hug him goodbye, and they did not say “I love you,” or “I will miss you.” However, that didn’t mean any of that wasn’t true; it just wasn’t anything a Taiwanese mother or son would’ve said out loud to each other. It’s only unfortunate that Pin-Jiu consequently didn’t learn to provide this for his Americanized daughter who did need that kind of affection from her father. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Angela asks her dad why he can’t just say something nice, and he is silent. We, as an audience, know it is because he simply never learned how to; he’s never opened up emotionally before — to his mother or his wife, who he never even loved. 

My main gripe with this film, then, other than its lack of a clear direction, is the absence of a “showdown” moment between father and daughter. There wasn’t a strong climax scene that gave me the catharsis I needed. Some may argue that father and daughter sitting beside each other at the dinner table in silence was that emotional showdown (“silence is loud”), but I almost wish Pin-Jiu and Angela would just scream at each other, let all the years of resentment and frustration out — both for themselves and for the audience. Sure, the two sat in a different kind of silence now — a silence that was not awkward, but comfortable — but I think this is a lot to expect for an audience to understand. Visual storytelling is not only the space we see on the screen, but also the actions and dialogue that dictate the story. Yang spent so much of the film building up a tension between father and daughter that was never truly released, only internalized. 

The film did end as beautifully as it opened, though. In great cyclical narrative fashion, we end back in Taiwan on Tigertail Street, and this time Pin-Jiu is joined by his daughter. While there wasn’t any climactic showdown between them in the film, there is a long-awaited outpouring of emotions in this final minute of the film when Pin-Jiu stares hopelessly at his childhood home, now empty and uninhabited, growth sprouting from the holes that had once been windows. For the relationship to open, the two need to open up to each other. So, the moment that Pin-Jiu erupts into tears and his daughter places her hand on his shoulder — a symbol of rare physical affection that breaks their cultural and generational barriers — he’s finally overcome his hardened heart and opened the floodgates to an open and communicative relationship with his daughter. The remnants of the house they stare at, the two of them framed squarely in the center by the camera through the torn-out windows, are a shell of the past. Yet they are so ripe and full of overgrowth that merely needs to be gardened, tended to, that they almost look sublime. A beauty in the past that is still green.

Contact Angelina Hue at ahue ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Angelina Hue is a staff writer for Arts & Life’s Film beat. She likes to poke and prod films as it is, so she’s happy she can write those thoughts down here. One of her favorite things to examine is how visual storytelling synthesizes art and narrative. She enjoys all things film, television, and books. Contact her at ahue ‘at’ stanford.edu, or find her on Twitter: @anjialina.