Published Apr 14, 2020If it wasn't clear from his incredible turn in Lulu Wang's The Farewell, Tigertail confirms that we are indeed living through the unexpected renaissance of Tzi Ma. As the star of Alan Yang's deeply personal story of the compromises to happiness that buttress the immigrant experience in our time, Tzi Ma presents an understated yet deeply affecting coldness — something that could only be found in a troubled life of gradually eroded expectations.
Following Pin-jui, a child born into poverty in Huwei, Taiwan, Tigertail charts the progressive dissolving of his idealized youth and hopeful prospects for a better life, as his immigration to the United States only leads to an unhappy but stable existence.
Capturing Pin-jui's life from his childhood in the rice fields of his grandparents' home to his adolescence with the love of his life and his embittered adulthood working himself numb in the States, Yang's script crosses his main character's morose and isolated existence in the present with the conditions which lead him to close himself off from his loveless marriage and distanced children. Opting for a slow, dispassionate presentation in his cinematography and editing, Tigertail allows the quiet trauma and trade-offs in Pin-jui's unhappy life abroad to steadily affect the audience. Some of the most powerful, revealing moments come from the moments of silence and sparsely exchanged words between Tzi Ma and his estranged family, showing how hollow his challenging life has made him.
While overbearingly sombre, Tigertail is saved from being overtly depressing by the cast's handling of the material. While Tzi Ma is the clear standout with his uncanny ability to communicate such buried personal trauma, the film carries the complicated emotions associated with the immigrant experience through its incredible cast of established and upcoming Asian-American talent. From the quiet suffering of Pin-jui's distanced wife played by Fiona Fu, to the resentful estrangement of his Americanized daughter played by Christine Ko, and the brief but entirely memorable appearance of Joan Chen, the cast's ability to provide a steely reality to Ping-jui's probably common immigrant experience is what gives the film its legs.
Perhaps Yang's painful yet relatable story is too melancholic for its own good, but Tigertail is dripping with complex humanity that can carry the film through even its most dour moments. Netflix's latest acquisition cuts through the deluge of forgettable online content by being utterly genuine and honest in its depiction of the less-than-ideal immigrant experience.