With cinemas closed for the foreseeable future and scores of highly anticipated theatrical releases postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang’s feature directorial debut “Tigertail” is one of the few movies available to viewers craving fresh films to cope with life in lockdown.
The highly personal project, which hits Netflix April 10, tells a version of Yang’s father’s immigration story through the character of Pin-Jui, a factory worker who leaves behind a budding romance in the Taiwanese village of Tigertail for an arranged marriage that takes him to the Bronx. Unfolding mostly in Taiwanese and Mandarin, it comes at a time when the pandemic has evoked ugly racism toward Asians around the world.
“I just hope that this film can act as a bridge for audiences that may not know Asian Americans very well,” says Tzi Ma, who stars as the older Pin-Jui. “If we can change one mind, that’s one mind less I have to worry about.”
Ma has been outspoken about his own recent experience of being heckled on his way to his local Whole Foods Market in Pasadena, when a passing driver shouted, “You should be quarantined!”
With screenings canceled and press junkets moved entirely online, preparing the title for release has been somewhat surreal, Ma admits, though the global reach of streaming has its upside. “Netflix has 170 million subscribers,” he says. “That’s a pretty impressive number! If I have to forgo the theatrical, that’d be the way to go.”
Though Yang hasn’t personally experienced coronavirus-related discrimination so far, he’s been alarmed by its rise, which the FBI warned two weeks ago could fuel a surge in hate crimes. “You feel like 2020’s not going to be 1945, but I guess sometimes you’re wrong,” he says. “The tone needs to be set by the people in charge, and unfortunately that hasn’t been the case.”
The frustration will fuel Yang’s continued fight for greater representation on-screen. “Part of our response to this is just to make more content with Asian American and Asian faces in them — to make people understand we’re human beings.”
A 2016 trip to Taiwan with his dad was Yang’s inspiration for writing “Tigertail.” It was the first time he’d visited since he was 7. After a few years mulling the script, he took it straight to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos — with whom he had a good rapport from the streamer’s Emmy-winning “Master of None,” co-created with Aziz Ansari. Sarandos quickly took it on board. “I was incredibly lucky,” Yang laughs. “Any filmmaker who hears this story will want to kill me.”
“Tigertail” has a made-for-TV aesthetic, but Yang insists Netflix was generous with a budget that “allowed us to make the film we wanted to make.” At a time when major American companies and studios, from Apple to Paramount, fastidiously avoid using the Taiwanese flag for fear of angering China — which doesn’t recognize the self-governed island’s legitimacy — Yang’s film proudly displays a row of them. (Of course, Netflix isn’t permitted to operate in mainland China and thus doesn’t have to worry about offending its government.)
Opportunities for Asian American creators have vastly improved since the “Joy Luck Club” days in the wake of breakout hits like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell,” Yang says. “When I started writing ‘Tigertail’ [four years ago], there weren’t any movies like this. Now we’re just starting to scratch the surface.”
As a writer-director-producer, Yang is drawn to personal stories of which he has firsthand knowledge; “Tigertail,” about his own family’s history, certainly fits the bill. “It’s really a love letter to where my dad is from, in addition to being a love letter to my father,” he explains. “It’s heavily fictionalized, but there are elements of emotional truth I wanted to convey.” His father provides the movie’s Taiwanese voiceover intro and outro.
As a young dropout of the dreaded Saturday-morning Chinese classes forced upon Chinese Americans of a certain age across the country, Yang had to put extra trust in his translators and actors to direct a project in two languages he doesn’t understand. “I speak about as much Mandarin as a goldfish,” he laughs.
He’s not overly worried that tackling an Asian story for his feature debut will pigeonhole him into adhering to such stories forever — although he allows that that would be a “luxurious problem to have.”
“Sure, pigeonholing could be a negative outcome, but man, it’s crazy that it’s even possible, and it goes to show how far we’ve come, frankly,” says Yang, who is writing Season 2 of the Apple TV Plus series “Little America,” a collection of immigrant stories.
“I don’t really worry about that for myself,” he continues. “Maybe that’s me being too confident, but I feel like I’ll write whatever I want.”