Alan Yang’s Tigertail (Netflix) is a short, well-made, and well-acted character study of a man who left home behind to make a life for himself in America. As he reconciles with the successes and regrets of his life, his relationship with his daughter comes into clearer focus.
Grover (Tzi Ma) is a Taiwanese-American man whose daughter Angela (Christine Ko) grew up in the United States. The cultural rift between father and daughter is deep, and despite undoubtedly loving each other, it’s proven difficult for the two to connect in any meaningful way. As Grover sees so much of himself in Angela, he remembers his youth in Taiwan and a crucial romance with the girl he once loved but was forced to abandon.
Making his feature film debut, writer/director Alan Yang avoids several of the pitfalls that first-timers typically come up against. He’s focused just as much on performance as on visuals (though both aspects are excellent), and never lets pacing flag at the expense of ego. This is a tight movie, arguably too short at just 91 minutes. The juxtaposition between desires and duties, and reconciling with the decisions a person knows they must make at the expense of ones that they should make, is handled delicately. There’s a certain universality to the immigrant experience regardless of country of origin that Tigertail manages to capture without ever feeling pedantic or repetitive.
Yang has directed episodes of “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None,” and won a Primetime Emmy for producing the latter. Tigertail is a significant step-up from those projects in terms of scope and ambition, and Yang proves himself up to the task. His is an exciting name to keep an eye on going forward. (I was also surprised to see an implied sex scene in a PG-rated movie, as quick and relatively chaste as it is.)
Tzi Ma gives a typically excellent performance as Grover. The actor has been around for a while, appearing in movies as wide-ranging as Rush Hour, Arrival, and The Farewell. Tigertail gives him a relatively rare opportunity to flex his dramatic chops and show why he’s such a good actor. Hong Chi-Lee plays Grover in his youth, and displays good range. He has about as much screentime as Ma, and never lets the veteran actor’s performance dominate the character. This is very much a two-hander performance.
As Grover’s daughter Angela, Christine Ko is also good. The nature of her character and her relationship with her father require her to be a little cold and distant. Still, she steps up during the more dramatic scenes that require her to do so. (A late scene in a coffee shop is a particular highlight.) Other performances are also good, with no one standing out as being out-of-place or below par.
Lensing by Nigel Bluck is tremendous. The flashback portions in Taiwan seem to have been shot on film (perhaps even 16mm). If not, they were treated with a very convincing film emulation LUT. I couldn’t find any technical information in this regard (comments to that end would be welcome). Nevertheless, the film’s visuals are faultless, even when the modern-day segments apparently switch to a transparently digital look. Even beyond the technical aspects, the use of colors and perspective are wonderful.
Editing is tricky, with the movie bouncing around in time, but Daniel Haworth’s work handles the time shifts capably. Production and costume design are good. There’s no score, but source music has been curated well, with songs fitting seamlessly into the movie.