The pleasure of watching Netflix’s Master of None comes from seeing immigrant stories getting the space to play out at a meaningful length, while being portrayed as everyday experiences rather than as anomalies. The episodes that center on first-generation immigrant parents (“Parents” and “Religion”) are the best the series has to offer, tackling the disconnect that can occur between generations and Eastern and Westerns senses of responsibility, as balanced with unconditional familial love. Tigertail, the feature directorial debut of series co-creator Alan Yang, feels familiar in that respect. It focuses on three generations of one family and the slow, sometimes painful process of learning to understand each other.
At the center of it all is Pin-Jui, played by longtime film and TV veteran Tzi Ma (The Farewell, Man in the High Castle), and Lee Hong-chi in flashbacks to his 20s, spent scraping by in Taiwan. As the film jumps back and forth in time, the two versions of Pin-Jui are difficult to reconcile. As a young man, he’s gregarious and adventurous, but his older self is reticent, reluctant to open up even to his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). The young Pin-Jui dreams of going to America, and Yang, who based the film on his own father’s life, slowly fills in the circumstances of Pin-Jui’s eventual departure from Taiwan, and the reason behind his change in personality.
It boils down to Pin-Jui’s choice to put responsibility and practicality over his own desires. Though his heart belongs to Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), she’s from a well-off family who would frown on a match with the financially struggling Pin-Jui. Agreeing to an arranged marriage with his boss’s daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) would give him the opportunity to move to America, and hopefully send for his mother down the line. So he leaves Yuan behind. Later, asked why he didn’t even tell her he was leaving, he simply says, “What good would it have done?”
On occasion, the film feels a little scattered. Angela’s marital struggles are an avenue to let Pin-Jui share his past, but they don’t get enough screen time, and feel shoehorned in rather than convincing. Her husband only appears in a brief, wordless scene, and Angela’s life isn’t really explored, outside of her scenes with her father. That sense of woodenness is jarring in a film that’s otherwise richly rendered — Pin-Jui, by contrast, is fully fleshed-out, perhaps as a result of Yang’s effort to properly convey his father’s story without hijacking it with his own.
The other threads of the story — the young Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen’s arrival in and adjustment to America, Yuan’s fate after Pin-Jui’s departure — are fascinating, as they offer a level of detail lacking in Angela’s story. (Other characters say she works too much, but Yang never actually reveals what her job is.) Rather than sharing their lives with nebulous, practically nameless figures, as Angela seems to, these characters have songs that matter to them, and friends with whom they share their troubles. They feel real, even if they’re not at the center of the story.
Tigertail’s greatest asset, however, is Tzi Ma. Though Ma’s credits include blockbusters like Arrival and Rush Hour, this may be his biggest role to date. Though he’s Tigertail’s co-lead alongside Lee, he has more weight to carry than he does, as the film spends more time on peeling back the layers of present-day Pin-Jui than hardening his younger self’s character. On top of that, Ma spends a good portion of his scenes alone, conveying Pin-Jui’s inner struggle purely through his expression, or even just body language. He’s so restrained and economical that when he finally does have occasion to truly smile, it feels like a miracle.
It’s tempting to compare Tigertail to The Farewell, given that both address the divide between Eastern and Western perceptions of what one owes to oneself and to one’s family, both feature Ma, and both are based on true stories. But drawing a connection between them has more to do with recency bias and the relative dearth of Asian and Asian-American stories in Western cinema. Tigertail is telling a completely different story, one of roads not taken and the ways life can change people. Yang is also working with a much dreamier mood palette. Voiceovers from Yang’s real father bookend the film, and the flashbacks are richer in color than the present-day scenes, lending a rosiness to the past.
The combination of elements adds up to a sucker punch of an ending, moving enough to temporarily wipe away any doubts about what came before. However, as the rush of opening that emotional dam fades away, impressions of Tigertail split in two, much like the film’s timelines. Ma’s performance remains a rich source of color and emotion; the thinness of Angela’s character, on the other hand, becomes a pall hanging over the movie. The advantage of Master of None was having space outside of a single episode to flesh out the second-generation characters, leaving space for the parents to take center stage. Tigertail requires a different kind of balance, on which Yang just misses the mark.
Tigertail is streaming on Netflix now.
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