Opening in 1950s Taiwan, during the rule of the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party), Tigertail introduces us to a young boy named Pin-Jui. He lives with his grandparents in the countryside while his mother looks for a job.
The film, streaming on Netflix, soon jumps to the present day: Pin-Jui, now an old man (Tzi Ma), lives in the United States and clearly has a fraught relationship with his grown-up daughter (Christine Ko); its not hard to discern that from the awkward silences. Spanning more than half a century, Tigertail goes back and forth in time, tracing the events that allowed Pin-Jui to achieve his American dream yet made him so aloof to his loved ones. It does this to mixed results.
The writer and director Alan Yang (co-creator of Master of None) was inspired by the story of his own father, who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. Hong-Chi Lee portrays Pin-Jui as a young man, who finds work in a factory alongside his mother, just like Yangs father had; they make just enough to scrape by.
These penniless years are the films most romantic, shot with rose-colored nostalgia. Pin-Jui starts dating his childhood crush, Yuan, and their shared scenes pulsate with longing. When he takes her out to a fancy restaurant an all-red banquet hall with a glamorous chanteuse serenading patrons one might think of Wong Kar-wai, the master of amorous atmosphere. Unable to foot the bill, the two lovebirds grab hands and make a dash for the exit in slow motion, set to a heart-racing string score.
These moments of ecstasy dwindle when Pin-Jui chases his American dream, leaving behind Yuan. He accepts an arranged marriage with his bosss daughter and moves to New York. Of course, America isnt what he expected it to be. He continues to live a routine, impoverished life and is still unable to afford to eat out.
Its easy to see how disappointment would wear Pin-Jui down, yet the callousness he develops toward his wife feels abrupt and unwarranted. The film is especially heavy-handed in the present-day scenes with his daughter, who says she was neglected. Their painfully expository conversations reveal the weakness of Yangs script. Those scenes left this viewer missing the sensory experience of the earlier parts of the film: the rustling among rice fields, the scarlet glow of dimly lit bars, the soft current of the river accompanying the sweet voice of Yuan as she sings Otis Redding under the blue hue of a moonlit night.
Rated PG. In English, Mandarin and Taiwanese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes.