For his feature directorial debut, Alan Yang chose to look close to home. Based on Yang’s own family’s experiences, “Tigertail” is set in both the past and the present and explores the life of retired Taiwanese immigrant Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma). We meet him as a child and watch him become a young man (played by Hong-Chi Lee) who falls in love with a childhood friend, Yuan (Kunjue Li). He ultimately leaves her and Taiwan behind, starting a new life in America with a wife he barely knows.
In breaking down two of the film’s scenes for Variety, Yang chose to focus on an early moment when the young Pin-Jui is on a date with his true love, dancing in a bar. The later scene shows Pin-Jui as an older man, struggling to connect with his grown daughter, Angela (Christine Ko).
THE DANCE SCENE (PAST)
This is the first time we see the young lovers since childhood, and we jump right into where they’re a couple. I thought that abruptness was kind of a virtue. We’ve seen him as an older man, and it’s a dramatic change to see who he was as a young man. I thought about my own father; I heard rumors he partied and he dated — and it’s something you never think about with your parents.
The location and look: We wanted to shoot the past in 16mm and make it distinct from the present, make it feel colorful and saturated and dreamlike, almost. For the location, Amy Williams, our production designer, and I went over a lot of reference photos. It needed to have an interesting, beautiful, cool vibe while at the same time not making it seem like it was in a big city or an upscale club. None of the places we visited seemed quite right. So the truth is, we used the lobby of like a burnt-out hotel in rural Taiwan. Just an empty room they built from scratch.
The clothing tells its own story. Yuen comes from a richer family; she has a beautiful dress that Olga Mill, our costume designer, designed the pattern for. Yuen is very colorful and represents the memory of his youth. He’s wearing a very simple white T-shirt, representing his humble roots.
Casting young Pin-Jui: Hong-Chi Lee was such a discovery. I essentially wanted a movie star, someone incredibly charismatic and passionate and charming.
In Taiwan, they don’t have the same sort of casting process we do here. I flew over and met a lot of actors in person, and the protocol was talk to them for a little bit, and if you strike up a rapport with them, you ask them if it’s OK to read lines with them. That’s what I did with Hong-Chi. We auditioned this dancing scene.
And he was terrible. [Laughs] I knew there was something about him I liked, and I went with my gut and cast him anyway. The first scene we shot with him, after the first take, my first AD, Thomas Fatone, leaned over and said, “I don’t speak a word of Mandarin, but that guy is incredible.” He had that star quality.
At the end of the shoot we had a wrap dinner, and he came over and said, “I just want to apologize, I know in that audition I was terrible. It’s because I’ve never done an audition in my life.” I said, “How did you get your first job?” He said, “I was walking down the street, and a guy saw me and said, ‘Hey, you have a great look -— you want to be in a movie?’” And he started doing movies.
THE LUNCH SCENE (PRESENT)
Pin-Jui has spoken to his ex-wife, and he knows Angela is having a tough time [in her personal life] but he doesn’t know yet that her husband has left her. He invites her to lunch at a restaurant.
The location: It was shot close to Angela’s apartment on the Upper West Side of New York. With a movie of this scale, you’re not generally shooting huge days, and you’re trying to pair scenes. So we scouted it, and it had these nice windows and kind of feel we wanted — not too nice, not too down, with great light behind them. I always had it in my mind that we would shoot profiles of them to show the separation between the two
of them and how they’re not connecting and feel alone.
The actors: Christine Ko deserves a co-writing credit because in talking about and rehearsing the scene, she sent me an email saying, “I just feel there’s a little more digging we can do to make this as resonant as possible.” She came up with a few ideas to make it not just about her husband leaving but the entire history she’s had with her dad. She’s had a father her whole life but hasn’t felt like it; she’s never known how to talk to him. They don’t tell each other they love each other. All of that came out of conversations I had with Christine.