by Ken Bakely
What’s most interesting about Alan Yang’s Tigertail is the particulars of its approach to examining memory and association. The nonlinear script emphasizes a peculiarly balanced interplay of flashbacks. Like real memories, they come in variously sized segments and moments; they’re not all the same scope or size, and they don’t insist on boxing themselves up into neat squares that perfectly match a character’s sudden realizations in the present. But while the film succeeds in emulating that process of remembrance and considering the past, it isn’t as successful in putting everything together into a cohesive and contiguous whole. The film revolves around Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma in middle age, and Hong Chi-Lee in youth), a Taiwanese man who comes from a hardscrabble background. Eventually, he will marry Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu in adulthood, Kunjue Li in youth), they will move to the United States, have a daughter, Angela (Christine Ko), and divorce. The dividend effects of Pin-Jui’s many life struggles have created problems in the present, where a silent and detached demeanor have gradually driven his family apart. These fragments – the unknowns of his emotional and even physical journey; the people, such as Yuan (Joan Chen in adulthood, Yo-Hsing Fang in youth), the girlfriend in Taiwan he had to leave; and how this all formed the person he would become – are the focus of the script’s arc.
At the center of this is Ma, who delivers an accomplished and involving performance, saying much even when there is little that is physically said. Tigertail wishes to closely investigate Pin-Jui’s personality, which grows increasingly chilly over the years. While Ma and Yang work well together in creating a character portrait which is involving from scene to scene, it’s harder for the film to expand or build from there. It feels underwritten, caught somewhere in the juxtaposed space between the deliberate spareness in its style and the sheer amount of time it covers and the characters it depicts. It’s hard to connect the dots here, possibly because there isn’t as much to connect as it seems there should be. While it’s certainly admirable that Yang doesn’t feel the need to oversimplify the complex combination of factors that make up Pin-Jui’s life story, the script, for large portions of the movie, is quiet to the point of being vacant. Threads in the present and past alike are tenuous, often wrapped up suddenly and in odd times. The consequence is that the rhythm of the film is often tenuous, making it difficult for the movie to breathe in its own right.
As it stands, the movie is effectively and thoughtfully made and performed, and it certainly poses interesting, worthwhile questions on the immigrant family’s experience and the complexities of an individual’s personal development. But in all the work it does in establishing its considerable scale and ambition, it does little in the way of filling out to the edges, and in the story’s most unfinished or tentative plotting, even struggles to go forward and truly try and think about the answers to its own questions. Of course, not every question has an answer, or at least not a definitive one, but Tigertail sometimes fails to engage even in the most elemental sense. Consider this: often featuring heavily in the present-day scenes is the distant relationship between Pin-Jui and Angela. She has spent years waiting for him to reach out to her before concluding that he probably never would, and now it is firmly on his incentive to try and forge a new path forward between father and daughter. Their conversations and interactions – deeply felt and brilliantly acted between Ma and Ko – are some of the film’s most resonant achievements. But as the story goes on, the returns of this motif diminish as well, and each development is increasingly unearned or otherwise unexamined. Eventually, everything comes off as disappointingly flat and unexplored. This parallels the promising, yet ultimately disappointing dynamic that makes up so much of this movie: accomplished and thoughtful in its setup, but lacking in substance.