“Tigertail” is a triumph. As in the best movies, its characters leap off the screen and will be remembered like old friends. The story in “Tigertail” is so fleshed out, so filled with emotion, that it feels like a memoir, not a fictional narrative. The film tells the life story of Pin-Jui, a Taiwanese immigrant to the US. It flashes between Pin-Jui’s elderly self, played excellently by Tzi Ma (“Arrival”) and his memories — chronicling his childhood, teenage years and how he left his life in Taiwan for the States.
Quiet moments, like older Pin Jui washing dishes and making tea, are filled with decades of formative memories. They run from sublime peace, like young Jui running along a river babbling through a rice field, to wrenching heartbreak, like teenage Jui leaving the love of his life. Tzi Ma is the anchor of it all, giving a piercing, yet painstakingly subtle, performance. He can convey a lifetime of emotions without uttering a word.
In most other movies, Pin-Jui’s older self would be a background character, or even an antagonist. He’s cold, quiet and angry. There’s a particularly jarring moment when he screams at his young daughter Angela (Christine Ko, “Stumptown”) for crying after a botched piano performance. This distance and harshness continues as Angela grows up and worsens once his wife leaves him. Yet Pin-Jui’s memories explain this mindset, showing his arranged marriage and choice to move to the States in search of opportunity, leaving his girlfriend and mother in Taiwan.
For Pin-Jui and his wife, the American Dream was a rundown apartment complex in 1970s New York, where nobody spoke their language. Jui worked at a pharmacy day in and day out, ignoring his loneliness, isolation and culture shock. While he made money, it cost him his loved ones. The film shows his attempt to get them back.
Is he too far gone? Can one go so far away from home that there is no going back?
Writer-director Alan Yang (“Master of None”) is a master of setting, and his eye for imagery frames Pin-Jui’s life with an almost mythic visual excellence. Be it a neon-tinted, Taiwanese nightclub or a crumbling house overgrown with tropical foliage, one sees Jui’s triumphs and losses reflected in every frame. This does not come across as inauthentic, as everyone gives their own memories hyperbolic weight.
While Taiwanese culture and history are integral to the film, responding to a kind of representation needed in 2020’s cinematic landscape, there’s a universality to his story that fits all walks of life. Hasn’t everyone left home at some time or another and regretted it? One will end the film in contemplation, perhaps even deciding to change one’s own life, taking that visit to Mom or calling that long lost friend.
“Tigertail” is the type of authentic, piercing cinema that only comes around once in a while. There’s no conventionality, no over-sentimentalized, happy ending and no stereotypes. Just humanity, plain and simple. In a time when people are growing increasingly divided, movies like this serve as reminders that the silver screen is the great equalizer. No matter where we come from, we just want to find our way back home.