Writer-director Alan Yang's deeply personal "Tigertail," available now on Netflix, documents the often sacrificial and somber process of immigration, largely inspired by his own father's experience of moving to the United States from Taiwan. In his feature directorial debut, Yang — best known as a TV comedy writer — richly yet quietly portrays how such a life-altering transition, regardless of circumstance, can be fraught with pressure, repression and regret.
In present-day New York City, Angela (Christine Ko) picks up her taciturn father, Grover (Tzi Ma), from the airport. He's just returned from his mother's funeral in Taiwan, an event of which he never informed Angela — she's all grown up, and Grover communicates with her no more than he deems necessary. As he arrives back home, however, his recent journey prompts a flood of flashbacks to his life as a boy and young man struggling against poverty, hoping to find a better life in the West.
But Grover's ability to immigrate ultimately comes at a price, causing him to leave the woman he loves behind as he builds a new life from the ground up in New York. We watch as his poverty and personal loss wear him down over many decades, turning him into the man Angela comes to know as her emotionally stunted dad. It's an arc that's just as grueling to witness as it is for Grover to endure firsthand.
Yang employs limited dialogue to convey this hardship, instead heavily relying upon expert blocking and manipulation of his performers. Ma, one of his generation's most reliable actors, gives a subtle performance largely concentrated to his incredibly expressive eyes, but the remorse they convey will crush you all the same.
Hong-Chi Lee — who plays Grover as a young adult — is equally evocative as he portrays the protagonist's descent from a doe-eyed romantic into a hardened, bitter vessel of bygone dreams. Cinematographer Nigel Bluck also brilliantly manipulates the mood of the film, lending the Taiwan flashbacks a particularly ethereal quality by using colored mood lighting and 16mm film.
As there are many jumps between different eras and locations, the film's dialogue switches frequently from English to Taiwanese to Mandarin, sure to be a turn-off to some. But if you have the free hour-and-a-half (which most of us do) and you're open to foreign-language films (which all of us should be), "Tigertail" will prove one of the more effective heartstring-tuggers to surface in some time.
Though our nations of origin and our tongues may differ, we all can relate to the themes of love, loss, repression and the hope of redemption. Yang and his film celebrate the unifying power of these themes in gorgeously memorable fashion.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.