Here’s the beautiful but frustrating thing about a movie as personal as Taiwanese American director Alan Yang’s “Tigertail,” which debuts on Netflix today: By drawing on specifics from his family story, Yang offers audiences — especially those with parents who were born abroad, as his were — a chance to see reflections of their own experience in a film determined to reconcile the gap between an immigrant father and his American-born child. At the same time, Yang overestimates just how relatable such a portrait might be, to the extent that “Tigertail” remains somewhat too obtuse in the telling.
Named for the Taiwanese village Yang’s father left behind when he moved to the U.S., the film endeavors to re-create the circumstances that sent him looking for opportunities abroad, the compromises he made to get there and the secrets this stoic man kept hidden from his children for decades, including a romance left unrequited an ocean away. Yang does a lovely job of capturing all that, channeling such directors as Wong Kar-wai and Edward Yang in the process, but missing from the picture — or else taken for granted — is a clear representation of the pain that such sacrifice imparts on the next generation, unless of course you’ve witnessed it for yourself.
Even so, for shut-in Netflix subscribers, Yang’s moving feature debut makes for a respectable indie alternative to the streamer’s outrageous true-crime “Tiger King” series (bound to pique curiosity when it pops up in searches for the hit show). Granted, the comparison is coincidental at best, as the two projects represent opposite ends of the vast spectrum of original content produced by Netflix: a rowdy tabloid-style rodeo of Jerry Springer-style tackiness versus a subtle, subtitled culture-clash drama in the tradition of “The Farewell” or recent Sundance winner “Minari.”
Frankly, “Tigertail” is the kind of movie that belongs on the festival circuit, and it’s curious that none invited the film (which doesn’t necessarily imply rejection, and could have more to do with Netflix’s cryptic release strategy). It may not feel like it, but this is a vanity project, designed to show Yang’s serious, artistic side. Even post “Crazy Rich Asians,” hardly anyone in Hollywood is looking to produce movies like this (no one but Macro, the forward-thinking outfit behind “Mudbound” and “Sorry to Bother You,” that is). But Netflix has every reason to keep Yang happy.
As a co-creator of “Master of None,” Yang and star Aziz Ansari became the first Asian Americans to win an Emmy for writing on a comedy series. Yang has since gone on to produce shows for Amazon Prime (“Forever”) and Apple TV Plus (“Little America”), so throwing him this bone is a good investment for Netflix, whose business model seems to be about working with top storytellers more than profiting on the fringy content they produce.
Make no mistake: “Tigertail” is a niche offering. There are a hundred crude compromises that Yang might have accepted to make the film more mainstream — from forgoing Taiwanese and Mandarin dialogue to spicing up the love scenes — but the only one that registers is his casting of a couple of fairly recognizable actors as the old-age versions of his characters: Tzi Ma plays the patriarch, Pin-Jui, while Joan Chen appears briefly as the one who got away, Yuan. Still, Netflix has the algorithms to push “Tigertail” in front of audiences who might appreciate such a story — not just Asian Americans but those with an interest in other countries, and the underrepresented pockets in our own.
“Tigertail” begins in the rice fields of occupied Taiwan, where Pin-Jui explains (via narration recorded by Yang’s real-life father) how he was sent to the countryside to live with his grandparents after his father’s death. The region was occupied by Kuomintang forces at the time, and though young Pin-Jui wasn’t old enough to understand the risk, Yang shows him forced to hide when soldiers visit the farm looking for dissidents. Into this difficult period comes a soulmate in the form of young Yuan.
Now, it’s one thing for the voiceover to say as much, but quite another for the film to dramatize this connection, and “Tigertail” falls short in making this romance as special as described — although composer Michael Brook’s aching string score imbues emotionally distant scenes with a sense of yearning. Flashing forward more than a decade, Yang shows two different actors (Hong-Chi Lee as Pin-Jui, Yo-Hsing Fang as Yuan) dancing, dating and ducking out on a pricey restaurant bill, but the scenes feel generic, inorganic, like the needle-scratch reenactments employed by certain documentaries. Maybe that’s because Yang (who’s channeling his father’s souvenirs) didn’t live these moments himself, or because he didn’t grow up in Taiwan.
More convincing are moments involving the sugar factory where Pin-Jui and his mother work, and where he makes the decision to marry the boss’s daughter, the soft-spoken ZhenZhen (Kunjue Li). In a sense, she’s his ticket to America, although it comes at the expense of true love. Pin-Jui abandons Yuan for this opportunity, and the consequences of that choice overshadow the remainder of the film, as his daughter Angela (Christine Ko), born of this anemic marriage, struggles to understand what her father went through while wrestling with problems in her own love life.
Imperfect though it is, “Tigertail” depicts an aspect of the first-generation American experience seldom captured on-screen — one of the central ironies of what’s euphemistically described as “diversity”: Forced to start over on foreign soil, many immigrants suppress or abandon their culture to assimilate, to the extent that their offspring may never know or understand their roots. These kids in turn are often perceived as outsiders by their peers, but feel every bit as American as their neighbors.
After the bullying subsides, there’s a natural tendency among such children to investigate what their parents left behind, met by a resistance on the parents’ part to reopen a door they closed behind them. “Tigertail” references this conflict, but in a somewhat lopsided way. The character of Angela — who is presumably Yang’s proxy, and ought to be the most relatable person here — is the least developed. “Tigertail” builds to a kind of understanding between her and Pin-Jui, but the movie has been centered so much on his tragic romantic history that it feels unresolved at the end. It’s courageous of Yang to share such a tribute to his father, though the most important things remain unspoken.