Once upon a time, a young man wanted to come to America. He’d grown up in the rural countryside of Taiwan with his grandmother, occasionally having to hide in cupboards from soldiers looking for unregistered citizens. The boy was lonely, except for a girl he met in the fields. His name was Pin-Jui, and her name was Yuan. Later, as a teen, his mother brought him to live with her (his father had long since passed away) and work beside him in a factory in the city. At night, Pin-Jui and Yuan dance to ’60s beat pop at a local bar and dine-and-dash at expensive restaurants. Their friendship is blossoming into a romance. But an opportunity to move to the U.S. beckons, so Pin-Jui leaves his mother, and his job, and his true love behind. He has a new life, a new wife and a humble New York apartment. Decades later, he’ll have a family, including an adult daughter who he doesn’t know how to talk to, and an old man’s memories and regrets. Many, many regrets.
Based very loosely on his dad’s own relocation and assimilation into American life, writer-director Alan Yang’s directorial debut has a way of gingerly lifting you up then quietly breaking your heart. A Harvard Lampoon alumni who cut his teeth in Parks and Recreation‘s writers room, the 36-year-old has been building an impressive resume over the last few years (he was a consulting producer on The Good Place and an executive producer on Little America; along with Matt Hubbard, he’s responsible for the brittle Fred Armisen/Maya Rudolph afterlife dramedy Forever).
But it’s Master of None, the show he co-created with Aziz Ansari, and the “Parents” episode in particular that’s the pitch pipe here, and you can see how the tone of that series informs what Yang is doing. There’s an attention to tell-all details (an old LP, an miniature organ, an unwashed dish) and a deftness to how he frames what’s essentially a familiar story of first-generation blues. More importantly, Yang has a keen sense when to let an emotional exchange play out in silence and when to glide by moments most other filmmakers would milk for maximum treacle. It takes a steady hand to drop an Otis Redding sing-along into a film and make it feel fresh. It takes faith in your own sensibility to craft a montage of Pin-Jui opening and closing a corner store — it’s his first job upon arriving in the U.S., then his first self-owned business — that communicates both the American Dream made manifest and the soul-draining repetition of a life lived solely through labor. Every immigrant’s story is different, and every immigrant’s story is the same. They need to be both personal and universal, and Yang has added voice to the chorus. He’s given us one account that feels like his dad’s unique, deeply felt experience, but also makes it reverberate like it’s his own — and ours.
He’s aided and abetted by a cinematographer (Nigel Bluck) who has a knack for capturing the romanticism of the past without unnecessarily prettifying it, and an editor (Daniel Haworth) who helps the toggling between Pin-Jui as an ambitious twentysomething and an autumnal patriarch feel naturally seamless, and a cast who could not be more unassumingly perfect. As the young versions of Pin-Jui and Yuan, Hong-Chi Lee and Yo-Hsing Fang channel being young, restless and impetuous; Lee, meanwhile, lets us see the protagonist gradually harden before his time once he’s arrived in the promised land. (Yuan ages into a familiar face when we catch up with her later, and even when you know the cameo is coming, it’s still a pleasant shock.) Pin-Jui’s wife, Zhenzhen, is given the full lost-in-a-strange-land wallflower treatment by Kunjue Li and the weary, jaded treatment by Fiona Fu. Their daughter Angela, as portrayed by Christine Ko, is a quick sketch of someone who no longer puts up with her father’s old-world stoicism, and has all but given up on a relationship with him. And then there’s Tzi Ma.
A dependable actor who’s spent years adding texture to projects — he’s who you called when you needed an authoritative general, or a factory manager, or the occasional fill-in-the-blanks touch of exotica — Ma finally got a proper showcase playing Awkwafina’s dad in last year’s The Farewell. The performer who was always “that guy from that one thing” had, at long last, a chance to dig into something a little deeper. His extraordinary turn in Lulu Wang’s drama now feels like it was a warm-up for this. The sheer amount of loss and grief and, later, slow and steady joy he brings out of the elderly Pin-Jui is astounding in its modesty — he lets you see someone who’s been taught to stifle emotions fumblingly attempt to reach out. (One brief moment, in which we glimpse this man come perilously close to crying, is a complete character study unto itself.) Ma gives this everyman a hard-won victory by inches, letting just the tiniest bits of expressiveness poke through. Yet you still get everything you need to know about Pin-Jui from him. He’s the anchor of the whole thing.
It would be unfair to fully explain Tigertail‘s last act, though you may be able to figure out where this gentle, heartfelt tale is going to wind up. All you need to know, really, is that it ties everything you’ve seen together, the title takes on new meaning and the film exits on what is, for my money, one of the single greatest last shots in recent memory. That Yang can collapse time and communicate such a rich, personal history with that final gliding image is proof that his aims do not exceed his grasp. It would be a beautiful and bittersweet work no matter when it was released. The fact that it comes at a moment when the country has forgotten its core values and compassion is a rare currency only makes this unassuming tribute to one’s roots feel more vital.