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‘Tigertail’ burns bright

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The story of America cannot be told without sharing the tales of those who come here in search of something. Something new or better or simply … different. Film has proven a capable medium with regards to bringing these sorts of narrative to life.

“Tigertail” – written and directed by Alan Yang – is one such immigration story. Released via Netflix, it is a rich and compelling tale of one man’s journey from a hardscrabble youth in Taiwan to a significantly successful life in America – one that shares the sometimes-harsh truth that an immigrant’s success often comes at a price.

Lushly shot and beautifully performed (in three languages, no less – Taiwanese, Mandarin and English), it’s a thoughtful meditation on one type of immigrant experience, one that illustrates the sacrifices that are made for the mere promise of a new life. Choices have consequences that can linger long after the perceived goal has been met.

We meet young Pin-Jui (Zhi-Hao Yang in his film debut) living in the rice paddies of Taiwan with his grandmother; his mother is in the city looking for work, while his father is deceased. He roams the fields fetching water all day, largely oblivious to the realities of the world around him – including the presence of Chinese military forces. His only friend is Yuan (Hai-Yin Tsai, “Love the Way You Are”), a young girl he encounters one day.

Flash forward many years. Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee, “Love You Forever”) is now in the city, living with and working alongside his mother (Kuei-Mei Yang, “Han Dan”). He has also reconnected with Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang in her debut), spending his evenings dancing and dining (and dashing) and generally falling in love.

But when his supervisor at the factory learns of Pin-Jui’s dreams of America, he makes a proposition – marry his daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li, “Berlin, I Love You”) and he will pay for them to go. Pin-Jui, seeing this as his only opportunity to escape, agrees … and leaves without even saying goodbye to Yuan.

The young couple’s life in New York City is tough. Their apartment is tiny and rundown. Pin-Jui must work long, difficult hours to provide for them, while Zhenzhen is isolated and lonely. The two, never particularly well-suited for one another, settle into a sad but efficient routine.

We also meet Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma, “The Farewell”) in the present day as he lives with the consequences of the life he has lived. Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu, TV’s “Blood and Water”) has left him, having stayed in the marriage just long enough to raise their two children – children with whom Pin-Jui has a standoffish and disconnected relationship. His relationship with daughter Angela (Christine Ko, “Justine”) is particularly strained – not least because in many ways, she is very much her father’s daughter.

Moving back and forth in time, we watch as Pin-Jui’s life plays out. He made many sacrifices to build this life, to be sure, but he also foisted those sacrifices on those closest to him. The choices that he made – choices he believed to be the right ones – ultimately prove to have consequences. He’s left to try and rebuild these relationships from the rubble of his life’s journey.

“Tigertail” illustrates the sacrifices that come with the American Dream, as well as showing that even when that dream ostensibly comes true, the rewards are not without their price. By following the journey of one man, tracking the highs and lows that come with such a monumental undertaking, we get to see that even success is not without its tragedies.

By moving us back and forth on the timeline, writer/director Yang gives us a chance to experience the various checkpoints on Pin-Jui’s journey with the necessary context to understand the impact on his life – and the lives of others – that his decisions are having. It’s a thoughtful exploration of how the relentlessness necessary to the immigrant experience can result in fallout, casting a sad shadow over the seemingly feel-good notion of success.

There’s a visual lushness to the film as well, an aesthetic that captures the disparate vibes of our various settings. Open, empty fields. Crowded houses and apartments. Different, yet similar urban landscapes. Loud factories and fancy restaurants and suburban enclaves. All rendered with a keen and discerning eye.

And in the midst of it all, some dynamite performances. Tzi Ma is an incredibly gifted actor; his portrayal of the older Pin-Jui serves as the emotional anchor of the film even as he largely refuses to allow any personal emotional display. Hong-Chi Lee does a good deal of heavy lifting as the middle Pin-Jui, driving the lion’s share of the narrative while keenly illustrating the depths of the struggle. Yo-Hsing Fang is mesmerizing in her turn as Yuan, her charismatic presence belying her inexperience. Neither Kunjue Li nor Fiona Fu get a lot of time in their respective turns as Zhenzhen, but both find ways to endow the character with a sad and tragic dignity. And Christine Ko perfectly embodies the never-quite-good-enough struggle often felt by the first American-born generation.

The Oscar winner Bong-Joon Ho spent much of this past awards season repeating the idea that American audiences would benefit greatly from overcoming the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles, allowing us to embrace the global power of film. A movie like “Tigertail” – with dialogue in three languages and distinct subtitles for both Taiwanese and Mandarin speakers – is a perfect illustration of the truth behind that notion. This is a film worth seeing, no matter what language you speak.

“Tigertail” has its flaws – there are some narrative gaps and a few odd choices – but those are more than overcome by the visual acuity and outstanding performances. It is a thoughtful and heartbreaking drama, one that deserves to be seen.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 13 April 2020 07:29

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