There’s a double-edged sword to the streamers that make them questionable distributors. On the plus side, they give a lot of new filmmakers a chance, and they tell stories that would otherwise struggle to get made in traditional channels. The downside, though, is that these films are likely to get lost, unceremoniously dropped with little marketing or attention and allowed to languish in those massive catalogues.
The fear of the latter hit me hard as I searched for Tigertail on Netflix the first Sunday of its release. It wasn’t in those fancy slots at the top of the page. It wasn’t in the US top ten, either. I actually had to use the search option, entering well past “tiger” because that Tiger King nonsense was everywhere. I assume my own taste had blinded me; I was greatly looking forward to its look at an immigrant reflecting on his youth in Taiwan and the benefits and downsides of his move to America, but it doesn’t look like everyone else was with me.
Part of me despairs in moments like this, thinking that it proves when push comes to shove people really want what’s familiar. Forget that Asian and Asian-American stories have been largely erased from American cinema. Forget that this promises a multi-generational look at the distance immigration puts between families (and no, I don’t mean physical distance). Forget that the trailer promised flecks of Wong Kar-wai’s swoony romances and all sorts of other gorgeous cinematography. From the look of that top ten, people wanted high concept rom-coms and new episodes of their favorite TV shows.
That only makes me want to champion Tigertail even more, but alas, it’s far from a resounding success. There’s bits that work, particularly its opening in Taiwan and the antagonistic relationship between father and daughter, but it promises much more than it delivers, ending just as it feels like it’s getting going.
Narrative problems were not what I expected from writer/director Alan Yang’s first feature, mostly because he’s worked extensively writing on shows like Parks and Recreation and Masters of None (the latter of which he also co-created). Penning a script, I assumed, would be his strong suit, while visual direction and other aspects of production would be less assured.
The reality is that the strong suits of Tigertail are the exact opposite. Those hints of Wong Kar-wai turn into a sexy portrayal of romance. The choice to shoot the past on film and the present on digital give the memories a vibrant look that’s in palpable contrast to our protagonist Grover’s current dreariness. It’s smart filmmaking, but it can’t hide the narrative woes.
It starts off well enough. We get Grover as a young dreamer played by Hong-Chi Lee, who in a simple white shirt is both strikingly handsome and unable to hide his disadvantaged upbringing. His burgeoning relationship with a childhood friend is easy to root for, but you understand when he compromises and marries a woman he hardly knows in exchange for a ticket out of Taiwan.
This is when the movie starts losing its way, falling into a surface-level look at the way America disappoints and Grover fails to pay attention to his young family. Present day Grover, as played by Tzi Ma, is almost inscrutably shut down, and while Yang attempts to explore his lifelong failures through his relationship with his daughter (which itself is distant in a wonderfully particular way), it simply can’t encompass everything. Where is this oft-mentioned son? How has Grover gone from that ratty NYC apartment to his nice home? What is it about American culture that makes him feel so adrift?
Tigertail is a swift 96 minutes long, but it’s one of the few movies where I’d recommend it going longer, using the time to fill in the blanks and make the whole movie feel as arresting as its early scenes. As is, it’s not a complete wash, but it’s hard to drum up a lot of enthusiasm for something that feels half-baked.