Tigertail (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A low-key immigrant drama from Netflix

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Netflix film “Tigertail” is a modest but engaging immigrant drama to be appreciated for its subtle human moments. As delicately revolving around its immigrant hero’s life story, the movie slowly lets us understand what he has sacrificed and suppressed for many years, and we are touched as observing how he comes to take a few forward steps for not only himself but also a person about whom he still cares a lot despite their estranged relationship.

At the beginning, we get to know the childhood years in the life of Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), a Taiwanese man who emigrated to US along with his wife Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu) a long time ago. Not long after his father died, young Pin-Jui, played by Zhi-Hao Yang, was sent to his grandparents’ rural home as his mother tried to find a job in Taipei, but his grandparents had to hide him because of some political matter involved with his parents, and there is a brief but tense scene where a couple of soldiers come to search around inside his grandparents’ house.

Anyway, after several years later, Pin-jui, who is now played by Hong Chi-Lee, becomes a good-looking lad, and he is now living along with his mother, who has worked along with him in a nearby factory. Although life is still hard and difficult for them, Pin-jui and his mother are happy to be with each other, and Pin-Jui also has been in a relationship with Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), who has been quite close to him since his childhood years. Although they will probably not be able to marry due to their social status difference, Pin-jui and Yuan still find themselves drawn to each other nonetheless, and it does not take much time for them to go to the next step of their growing romantic relationship.

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And then there comes an unexpected change in Pin-jui’s life. After he happens to be noticed by the wealthy owner of the factory where he and his mother work, he is instructed to meet the daughter of the factory owner, and that is none other than Zhenzhen, who is played by Kunjue Li at this point. Zhenzhen’s father wants Pin-jui to marry Zhenzhen and then emigrate along with her to US, and Pin-jui cannot possibly say no to the offer from Zhenzhen’s father. After all, he has aspired to be successful enough to take care of his mother, and emigrating to US surely looks like a golden opportunity for success.

Right from their first encounter, both Pin-jui and Zhenzhen are awkward to be around with each other, but, once Pin-jui comes to accept the offer while leaving Yuan without a word, they have no choice but to accommodate each other. They are still two total strangers as they begin to settle in some neighborhood area of New York City, but they try their best for their new life in US, and we see how they get accustomed to their new world step by step. While Pin-jui gets employed at a local store, Zhenzhen takes care of their small residence, and she also comes to befriend a fellow Taiwanese immigrant, who amused me a bit for mentioning a certain annoying aspect of South Korean immigrants.

However, as time goes by, Pin-jui and Zhenzhen are reminded more of the growing estrangement between them. As Pin-jui becomes more occupied with his work, Zhenzhen feels more loneliness than before, and she starts to consider studying for becoming a certified schoolteacher after discussing with her friend, but then the situation is changed when she gets pregnant.

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Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on Pin-jui’s solitary life at present. He and Zhenzhen eventually divorced when their children grew up enough to be independent some time ago, and now he is living alone in his current residence without much interaction with his ex-wife or his children. Not so surprisingly, his daughter Angela (Christine Ko) has been quite frustrated with his stern and repressive attitude, and there is a painful flashback scene where her younger self does not get much consolation from her father shortly after a very embarrassing moment in the middle of her piano performance on the stage.

Now this looks like a familiar setup for melodrama, but director/writer Alan Yang, who has been mainly known as the producer/writer/director of Netflix TV sitcom series “Master of None”, lets the situation developed slowly via a series of small but impactful moments. Especially after coming to learn of how much his daughter has struggled in her personal life, Pin-jui looks back at his lifelong pains and regrets, and there is a little poignant moment showing his stoic face considerably brightened at one point later in the story.

And everything depends a lot on the subtle nuanced performance from Tzi Ma, who recently appeared as one of the main characters in “The Farewell” (2019). Even when he does not speak anything, his seemingly inexpressive face speaks volumes about what his character has kept to himself for many years, and that is why it is moving to see Pan-jui beginning to open himself up to his daughter in the end. It is just one small confession at first, but that eventually leads to a series of profound moments between him and his daughter, and the last shot of the film is a sublime final touch to their emotional journey along the story.

On the whole, “Tigertail” is an engaging movie thanks to its thoughtful direction as well as the good performances from its main cast members, and Yang makes a solid feature film debut here in this movie. Considering his immigrant family background, this is surely a personal story to him, and I admire how he sensitively presents it with considerable care and attention. He draws my attention indeed, and I guess I can have some expectation on his next story to come.

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