At first glance I didn’t think I would empathize with Alan Yang’s Tigertail, a film about an immigrant father who has lost touch with his family, himself, and his purpose. As someone who grew up in a typical Filipino family and has lived in the same place almost all my life, Tigertail presents a story so disjointed from mine. But the film, while centered on the theme of immigration, also tackles themes of loneliness, class struggles, and being a stranger to your own family. In hindsight, Tigertail is a love story to home, culture, and identity.
The film begins with Pin Jui’s (Hong Chi-Lee, Tzi Ma) childhood, from where it was revealed that he lost his father and to when he meets his first love Yuan Lee (Yo-Hsing Fang, Joan Chen). It then moves forward to years later, where he, now a young adult working in the same factory as his mom, reunites with his childhood amour.
The first half of the film depicts the difficulties Jui experienced in Taiwan being born to a poor family. He knew it would be difficult for him to eventually marry Yuan because of his social standing. He fixated on going to America to give his mother a better life.
America becomes the beacon of hope; a country full of opportunities, a clean slate to start anew. Ping Jui’s story, however personal, is ultimately the story of a vast majority of Asian-Americans living in the US. It feels familiar. It’s as if I’ve heard it from a classmate in passing or a family member who left the country to try his luck abroad. Jui, determined to reach American soil, chose to marry someone from a rich family that would take him to the land of his dreams. This is the catalyst of Jui’s descent to loneliness.
It’s never easy to pick between love and career. Jui made the decision to provide, to take the opportunity presented to him. For the most part, he did become happy. He had built a home and a family of his own. But decades later, the question of happiness still stands. He’s living in a house with the ghost of his divorced wife and shadows of his distant children; the question is glowing more than ever.
This film reminds me a lot of Wong Kar-wai’s work. It exudes a specific feeling: warm but with a touch of melancholy, a feeling you get from a distant memory. Tigertail is a memory of a man who has forgotten the feeling of genuine warmth and love.
The latter half of the film focuses on his distant relationship with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Her character serves as a great device to mirror the emptiness of not knowing who you’re supposed to be aside from being a workaholic corporate slave. In a sense, Jui and Angela are very much alike: alone and disjointed from their identities. Angela reflects the fatigue and unhappiness Jui felt in America.
Tigertail is only 91 minutes long. Despite its short runtime, it was able to present a poignant story of a lost man, father, and husband trying to grasp a connection with his past, his identity, and his daughter. It could have been longer—I wish we could have seen his relationship with Angela develop or him finally becoming happy. The ending left me wanting more closure. But I guess some stories are meant to end that way. It’s up to us to imagine what lies ahead for the characters. Tigertail leaves us to be hopeful.
There is nothing groundbreaking in terms of its filmmaking. What makes Tigertail good is its story. It’s a heartfelt ode to the past; a coming home to lost emotions, feelings, and colors that was buried to sustain a better living. It’s a reminder that sacrifices are done to build a better life, but it’s also a homecoming to what has been left behind, looked back on and never forgotten.