For every derisible original film Netflix puts out (Spenser Confidential was just last month, folks), they deserve more credit for giving non-American filmmakers a space (not to mention a budget) to tell stories about which hardly any other studio would dream.
No major studio in their right mind would release something as downright bizarre as Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, a fantasy with all the heart of E.T. and all the violence of Oldboy. And where else could Alfonso Cuarón have gotten the backing to film Roma, his gorgeous, black-and-white rumination on Mexico City?
This isn’t the first time Tigertail’s writer-director, Alan Yang, has worked with Netflix. He’s a co-creator of the wonderful series Master of None, which tackled thorny subjects like the immigrant experience, religion and sexuality with a graceful — and frequently hilarious — sense of empathy. Yang’s feature-film debut is a decidedly more somber exercise than that show, yet it’s a refreshing immigration tale all the same; it’s not about the opportunities someone gains when emigrating to America but rather the connections they may leave behind.
Tigertail’s nonlinear story unfolds around the memories of Grover (Tzi Ma), a Taiwanese-American now living out his retirement years in a strained marriage with his wife, Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu), and a distant relationship with his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). In flashbacks, Grover (played here by Hong-Chi Lee) isn’t the cold and disgruntled older man we’ve met but an exuberant young man hoping to escape his life as a factory worker in Taiwan to make a better life for himself in America.
There are two factors keeping the young Grover grounded in Taiwan — his resilient mother, who’s more than content to work out the rest of her days working in the same factory, and Yuan (Yo Hsing-Fang), a girl he forms a brief, passionate romantic relationship with after asking her for a dance at a bar one evening. However, when his boss offers him an opportunity to move to America that would also involve an arranged marriage with his daughter, Grover takes him up on it. And while he does indeed find financial success in America, we can see from his presently miserable state of mind that it’s a decision he’s lived to regret.
Thus Yang’s movie is ultimately not just about the personal toll of leaving your home behind. It’s also a tale of lost loves, fathers and daughters and making peace with the past. The sad, swooning score and the stillness of the cinematography most obviously recall Wong Kar-wai’s melancholy masterwork In the Mood for Love, another overseas film about a love affair cut short. Tigertail, despite a story spanning multiple decades and generations, feels a bit too slight by its final, moving scene. Perhaps it’s because the Grover’s character arc doesn’t offer many surprises even if it still lands a hefty gut punch.
Any gripes to be had with Tigertail are admittedly minor. This might not rank among the most staggering works of foreign cinema Netflix has put out in the past, and that’s perfectly fine. Tigertail is painting on a much smaller canvas, but that doesn’t diminish its power. In a time where COVID-19 has spurred a rash of contemptibly casual anti-Asian racism, it’s a joy to see an immigration tale told with this much nuance.