Alan Yang’s Tigertail finds rich beauty in a sea of regret. The decade spanning tale offers a somber look at the immigrant experience through the eyes of a man caught in a vicious cycle of desire and melancholy. One can argue that the elderly Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) has spent his entire life chasing after things just out of grasp.
We are introduced to Pin-Jui as a young boy (Zhi-Hao Yan) in Taiwan as he runs through his grandmother’s rice fields fantasizing of being reunited with his parents. Of course, despite his reluctance to acknowledge it, such a reunion was never in the cards. His father passed away when Pin-Jui was only a year-old and his mother was forced to leave him with his grandparents while she searched for stable work to support them. The only thing that helped to curb Pin-Jui’s sense of isolation was his friendship with a local girl name Yuan (Hai-Yin Tsai).
Once inseparable as kids, their lives intersect once again years later when Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) is a young man working at a factory alongside his mother. As the romantic bond between him and Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang) flourishes, an opportunity arises for Pin-Jui to fulfill his dream of leaving his impoverished life in Huwei for the land of prosperity that is America. The catch, of course, is that he would have to marry Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), the shy daughter of the factory owner whom he has nothing in common with.
It is ultimately his choice to go to America that leads Pin-Jui down a road of regret. As Yang’s film jumps around in time, snapshots of Pin-Juii’s marriage and life create an unromanticized portrait of the American dream. This sense of disconnect and isolation hovers over Pin-Jui like an unshakable cloud. This is especially apparent when observing his inability to compose any form of meaningful discourse with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko).
As with many of the relationships in the film, Yang only highlights key interactions, some volatile and some mundane, to provide context to Pui-Jui’s journey. Trusting the viewer to fill in the gaps, Tigertail unravels at a measured pace. It is like a meditative puzzle, one where the framework is far more important than the missing pieces. One does not need to see every argument to understand that Pin-Jui is the architect of his own drab metaphorical prison. A point that is further emphasized by Nigel Bluck’s cinematography, which is at its most vibrant when focusing on the protagonist’s time in Taiwan.
Contrasting the rich warm textures of the rice field and Taiwanese restaurants with the cold, and at times colourless, aspects of Pin-Jui’s American life, Bluck brings subtly effective layers to the film. Couple this with strong performances by the always wonderful Tzi Ma and the ensemble cast, which includes a great cameo by Joan Chen as the mature version of Yuan, and you get a fascinating and surprisingly touching work. Tigertail is a film that may wade in the waters of regret and isolation, but it is ultimately a reminder that connection and hope is always one decision away.