Readers Write In #171: Tigertail (Netflix): A slow-burn portrait of the harsh realities of the American Dream!

Posted on May 7, 2020

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(by Vivaciously Yours)

Tigertail introduces us to a little boy Pin-Jui running through green pastures in the 1950’s Taiwan ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party, Kuomintang. Pin-Jui lives with his grandmother in the countryside while his mother looks for a job in the city, and occasionally has to hide in the cupboards from soldiers looking for dissidents. In the present day, we are shown an old man(an amazing Tzi Ma) living in the US, divorced and has an estranged relationship with his adult daughter Angela. The movie moves back and forth spanning more than a half-a century, creating an intimate viewing experience that helps us understand the events that sent this man looking for opportunities in a foreign land, his compromises in life in getting there, and the many many regrets and memories behind the grim and stoic man.

Young Pin-Jui works at the sugar factory with his mother. The romance between Pin-Jui and his childhood friend turned love, Yuan(Yo-Hsing Fang) is so fresh and endearing- dancing, dating, singing the Otis Redding song by the lake with moody redlight and ‘Moonlight’. We witness the growing affinity that Pin-Jui has towards the American Culture and he sees marrying his boss’s daughter, a naive, soft ZhenZhen(Kunjue Li) as a ticket to his American dream. The film’s heartbreaking and beautifully shot scene is when Pin-Jui leaves town with his newly wedded wife unannounced to Yuan, spots her through the rain drenched window of his taxi. To his dismay, America in the 70’s is nothing like what Pin-Jui imagines, he and his wife have nothing in common and they slowly drift apart.

Where Tigertail succeeds is the portrayal of the experience of the first-generation Asian Immigrants. Director Yang stays clear of stereo-types, and shows us how immigrants who are forced to start a new life in a foreign soil, suppress their culture inorder to assimilate. And how the consequences of the choice they make to live the American dream overshadows their children. Their children fail to identify with their roots, they feel every bit an American themselves, but are perceived as outsiders by their peers. The montage of Pin-Jui opening and closing the shutter of his store communicates so much more than the years rolling- we see him as an employee, then the store owner: clearly shows the American Dream becoming a reality all the while portraying his life so painfully repetitive, a life purely lived through labor. It could be any immigrant’s story, and yet its Pin-Jui’s.

Pin-Jui’s daughter Angela is so distant and frustrated at him for his coldness, his lack of sympathy and they share nothing in common. But what we actually see is how similar their lives are- Both father and daughter are living a lonely life, almost numb about their being, they both are shown doing dishes at the same time but living under a different roof. Angela’s boyfriend leaves her, similar to how her mom left her dad and the best moment between the two is when both are shown seated on a dining table side-side in silence sipping tea, internally both are living in solitude totally broken and more similar to each other than they could even fathom.

What Hollywood is used to showcasing is the tiger mom mentality, or the generational divide over how the young are too quick to assimilate American culture. But what Yang shows is how little the children know their parent’s past, or their culture and their compromises. Angela finds her father aloof and intimidating, but she has no clue of the young and charismatic dad, his suppressed feelings as an immigrant and how he is torn between two worlds, and is unsure of what he should call his ‘Home’. The past is shown in vibrant colors, and the present is shown very drab, effectively capturing the brutal reality of how he is split between two worlds. The young Pin-Jui’s grandmother tells him, “Don’t cry, crying solves nothing. Never let anyone see you cry”. Little does he know how this one lesson affects everyone around him and his life. Ma as the older Pin-Jui is excellent, showing even the tiniest expression seep through. His character arc shows loss, grief in a man who has been taught to contain his emotions. From the organic way in which he reaches out to present-day Yang and the first smile he is shown to have in decades when they meet after several decades, Ma just shows us how once a romantic guy turned into a stone-faced cynic so naturally.

My favorite part was the final scene, when Pin-Jui and Angela visit their hometown in Taiwan, and we are shown through the window of the house, Pin-Jui crying, a man who is forever tied to his past, finally making his peace and also makes amends with his daughter. I couldn’t help but stop and realize, as an immigrant, no matter how much we miss our past, how much emotion we have towards our past and our home, how much ever we wish we can reset the clock and go back in time, we just can’t. While opening up to his daughter about his past, we understand that he isn’t lonely because he has no one to talk to, but because he has lost a part of himself in all that he has sacrificed while achieving his dream.