Netflix created an incredible amount of buzz with its documentary miniseries “Tiger King.” The story behind Joe Exotic is sensational and worth all of the discussion. However, the streaming giant has produced a far more moving drama that also happens to have “tiger” in its title.
“Tigertail,” written and directed by Alan Yang, tells the story of a Taiwanese man who immigrated to America. In the present day, Pin-Jui, played by Tzi Ma, has grown old and has disassociated with the people he was close to. Throughout the story, Pin-Jui reflects on how his immigration fought against his familial responsibilities and how it affects him in the present.
This is a very impressive debut feature because Yang has to juggle multiple timelines, countries and even different languages. English, Mandarin and Taiwanese are spoken throughout, and the non-English languages have different subtitle formatting to show when people are having conversations in different languages.
Yang worked with cinematographer Nigel Bluck to make a clear visual distinction between the present day and Pin-Jui’s past.
The flashback scenes, when Pin-Jui first fell in love with Yuan, played by Yo-Hsing Fang, are shot on 16mm film. Yang and Bluck wanted to fit the technology with the time period they were in, so using older film technology adds on more grain and texture. The cinematography also captures deep emotional reds in the neon signs outside Pin-Jui’s home that evoke the entirety of Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love.”
Yang also hints at another Wong Kar-Wai film, “Chungking Express,” as Pin-Jui and Yuan sing Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Both films use mid-60s Americana songs to capture the feeling of romantic longing.
The performances of the actors complement this detail and bring more passion to the story. Hong-Chi Lee has charisma as the young Pin-Jui while Ma has far more regret in his era of the character. Yet, they both feel cohesive. Ma definitely has more dramatic weight to carry, and his casting is a no brainer. His work in last year’s “The Farewell” was phenomenal and, although both roles are very similar, he is not being typecast. His supporting role on HBO’s “Veep” proves he is a jack of all trades.
The flashbacks that serve as the narrative structure for the film are woven well throughout. It would have been much easier to have Pin-Jui’s older days bookend the story at the beginning and end, but it wouldn’t have half the impact that it actually does. As he is putting away his clothes in the present day, he sees a photo that triggers the memory. His reaction does not feel forced because that’s how memory works — it’s nonlinear. This structure comes directly from the writer and director. Yang pulls it off very well.
Yang has been cutting his teeth in comedies for the past decade as a writer and director in shows like “Parks and Recreation.” You may recognize him as the bass player in Mouse Rat. So, it’s surprising to see him pull this intimate and powerful drama off, but not unbelievable as an Emmy-winning writer. He is a great storyteller, and hopefully, he is not a one-hit-wonder.
“Tigertail” may be in different languages, but it’s less disorienting than the crime documentary that everyone is streaming right now. This movie has a human heart and tells a powerful story of acceptance that needs to be told during these trying times of the pandemic.
Email Cameron Kaercher at email@example.com