Alan Yang‘s Netflix film Tigertail, hasn’t shown up on many end-of-year lists, nor has it been at the forefront of conversations for the longest awards season ever. But it is a fantastic film. It’s easily accessible and has been since its release (on Netflix, in April). And it came with at least a few, if not big, then at least recognizable, critically-acclaimed names, like Tzi Mai (The Farewell) and Yang himself (Master of None). It is on these grounds that I’ll assert: Tigertail is the most underrated film of the year.
Tigertail is Yang’s debut feature, and though it’s not quite an autobiography, it is deeply personal—an imagining of his father’s immigration story from Taiwan. We first meet the fictionalized version of Yang’s father—named Pin-Jui—as a young boy living with his grandparents in the rice fields in Taiwan. Pin-Jui’s father died young, and his mother didn’t have the money to care for him alone, so he was temporarily sent to live with his grandparents while she looked for work. Those who don’t know the history of Tawain and the Chinese Nationalist Party in the 1950s will quickly pick up on the tension when Chinese soldiers search Pin-Jui’s grandmother’s home. They chastise her for not speaking Mandarin, and, cleverly, Yang distinguishes the English translations of the two languages by putting Mandarin subtitles in white and Tawainese subtitles in brackets.
And that’s just the cold open. Most of the film is spent cutting back and forth between Pin-Jui as an old man in the present-day (played by Tzi Ma), and Pin-Jui as a young man in the 1960s (played by Hong-Chi Lee). It’s the latter setting where the film comes to life as a vibrant, swoon-worthy love story. Over shared cigarettes and Otis Redding records, Pin-Jui falls for a free-spirited woman named Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang). Neither has any money to their name, but it’s the kind of young love that makes the necessity of a dine-and-dash date feel romantic. The glamour of poverty wears off when Pin-Jui’s mother gets injured at her factory job. Pin-Jui, determined to give his mother a better life, makes the tough decision to marry a woman named Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li). He doesn’t love her—he loves Yuan—but Zhenzhen’s father has money, and will pay for the newly wed-couple to move to America to start over.
There are a few first-time-filmmaker bumps along the way, but like Tzi Ma’s 2019 film The Farewell, what Tigertail lacks in polish it more than makes up for in heart. It’s a thoughtful, gorgeous film about missed opportunities, lifetimes wasted, and finding meaning in new generations. And yet it came and went without receiving the attention it deserved, both from critics and the public. Perhaps the release date is partially to blame: April 10, when many people, especially New York-based film critics, were rightfully distracted by having our world turned upside down by the worldwide pandemic. But if you missed it then, catch up on it now. Tigertail is but a click away on Netflix, and it’s one of the best films of 2020—no matter what the end-of-year lists say.
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