‘Tigertail’ director Alan Yang on making the past not ‘a memory, but a beautiful dream’

April 9, 2020, 5:30 PM UTC

In the opening minutes of Tigertail, a deeply affecting new drama from Master of None cocreator Alan Yang, a little boy dashes across rice fields, cyan stalks rustling in the wind as he searches, in vain, for his mother. He could have sworn he saw her working nearby. 

Tears well up in his eyes when he returns home and struggles to relay this confusion to his grandmother, who chastises him. “Crying never solves anything,” she says to him in Taiwanese. “Be strong. Never let anyone see you cry.” Slowly, he nods.

Yang, speaking with Fortune by phone, says: “It’s a perfectly valid reason for a little boy to cry, missing his mother. But that’s endemic in Asian culture, and that’s how my parents were raised, quite frankly. They passed on some of those lessons to us.”

His Tigertail, on Netflix this Friday, is primarily about this process of emotional inheritance: about the kinds of lives we learn to live from our parents, the ones they seek to give us, and the incongruities between the two. It’s loosely based on Yang’s relationship with his own father and was largely inspired by a trip they took to Taiwan four years ago.

“Tigertail,” Alan Yang’s directorial debut, is deliberately shot, with the color palette differing between past and present.
Chen Hsiang Liu—Netflix

Sweeping yet specific, the film spans generations, decades, and continents in following that boy, Pin-Jui (played by Hong Chi-Lee as a young man, and Tzi Ma when older), from childhood in Taiwan through the life he builds for himself after immigrating to New York. Cutting back and forth across decades, Tigertail also shows us Pin-Jui’s decision to leave the woman he loves, Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fan), behind in Taiwan, instead marrying Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), whose father can financially support a move to America. Later in life, we see Pin-Jui as a divorced father, rendered remote and regretful by these choices. 

All along, one senses Pin-Jui has internalized his grandmother’s teachings, especially as he holds daughter Angela (Christine Ko) at an emotional distance—and in harrowingly relatable moments such as when he scolds his daughter for tearing up after a botched piano recital. 

“I’m sure that’s one of the most painful scenes for Asian kids who watch this movie,” says Yang, laughing. “It’s not the nicest and perhaps healthiest thing to tell a kid, because sometimes it’s okay to engage your emotions. But the sacrifice and struggle our parents’ generation went through can toughen you up, in both good ways and bad ones.”

The tenacity and harshness with which Pin-Jui learns to approach parenting, Yang says, speaks to an essential truth of life for many immigrants—including his own father.

“You have to be better, you can’t just be the same, because the tie will go to the people who’ve been here longer, the ones with connections and an institutional history with this country,” explains Yang. “You bring home a 99 on a test, they ask you why it’s not 100, because they know 100 is undeniable.” 

Yang’s carried the pressure of Asian excellence with him all his life; he attributes his success in Hollywood in part to the high bar he was frequently asked to clear as a child. “In some ways, I feel grateful for that work ethic, because they instilled that in me and it’s served me well,” he says. “I’m insane. I want to work harder than everyone else. I feel like I owe that not only to myself but to them.”

Yang, pictured in May 2017, has explored the emotional baggage of being an immigrant or the child of one in previous projects, including Netflix’s “Master of None,” which he cocreated with Aziz Ansari.
Alberto E. Rodriguez—Getty Images

Yang’s also no stranger to exploring this territory on screen. Acclaimed for their empathy and attention to detail, his comedy projects—particularly both Emmy-winning seasons of Master of None, cocreated with Aziz Ansari—sometimes directly unpack the emotional baggage of being an immigrant, or the child of one, in America. An early standout episode, “Parents,” explored generational gaps between American-born children and their immigrant parents. Nimbly, across a series of poignant, gently funny exchanges, Dev (Ansari) grew closer with his cheery but at-times exasperating parents, both Indian immigrants, while his Taiwanese-American friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) worked to bond with his kindly, reticent father. 

The episode brought into focus that tangle of guilt and gratitude, dissimilarity and disconnect, that can form between immigrant parents and children, both with unique lived experiences and relationships to their culture. When Yang and Ansari won an Emmy the next year for writing it, they spoke about the importance of diversity on screen, with Yang encouraging Asian parents to push their kids toward filmmaking as opposed to, say, violin.

At the time, Yang was already working on what would eventually become Tigertail, drawing on stories his father had told him about emigrating from Taiwan. At one point, it was even titled Family Movie, though Yang soon found himself drawn toward a more fictionalized, even mythic telling of the immigrant story. 

Tigertail is definitely not an exact representation of what happened to my dad or my mom,” says Yang. 

“I asked them questions about their lives to get just enough information that I could see the larger emotional picture,” he adds. “I’d think about characters’ motivations and feelings and then fill in the gaps with my own imagination, as well as the influences of other great Asian films.”

Yang’s directorial debut, Tigertail is deliberately shot, lensing each setting distinctly. Intense reds and greens inform the color palette of scenes shot on 16mm film in Taiwan, while a grittier, Fujifilm filter is implemented once Pin-Jui moves to The Bronx. Modern-day scenes, meanwhile, were shot digitally with a focus on browns and grays Yang saw as intrinsic to capturing New York in the fall.  

“We talked about specifically how to differentiate the past from the present,” he says, “and how to make the past feel not just like a memory but a beautiful dream.”

An avid cinephile, Yang pored over the films of Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, especially the former’s In the Mood for Love and the latter’s A City of Sadness, searching for ways to visually accentuate the beauty of his Taiwanese settings—the sugar factory where Pin-Jui and his grandmother labor, a swoon-y nightclub where he and Yuan dance to Mandopop, those cyan rice fields—while folding elements of the country’s history into his story. 

Hong Chi-Lee, left, as young Pin-Jui and Yo-Hsing Fan, right, as Yuan in “Tigertail.”
Chen Hsiang Liu—Netflix

“Narratively, I also talk a lot about Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, which is also about a Taiwanese family in a way that addresses emotion and taps into strong feelings but executes it in a way that’s not sentimental or melodramatic, that’s powerful without being histrionic,” adds the director. “It says so much while saying so little, and it’s about the silences and the gaps.”

Tigertail features dialogue in Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English, rooting it in a certain cultural specificity—though the film’s family dynamics are universal. In casting his main actors on both sides of the Pacific, Yang looked for actors who could improvise in multiple languages. 

“I watched it all,” he says. “At that point, I just wanted to feel their ability to play both restrained, quiet, and awkward and also more lively.”

It was particularly important to find two actors, for the role of Pin-Jui, who could each play one side of the same character while suggesting another. “With Hong-Chi Lee and Tzi Ma, you really want two sides of the same coin,” says Yang. “You want the passion and vitality of youth, overt movie-star characteristics. And then, when Pin-Jui gets older, you want it all interior, for him to say so much with so little.”

To capture Pin-Jui’s insularity, Ma summoned his own, painful family history.

For him, Tigertail stirred up memories of an older brother, who struggled after their family moved from Hong Kong to America. The youngest of seven children, Ma was only 5 years old when his parents shifted him and his siblings to New York. His brother, who’d been an architect back home, soon discovered his degree was not recognized by many U.S. employers, preventing him from finding work in that field. To support the family, he became a cook in the American Chinese restaurant his parents bought and ran in Staten Island.

“In Hong Kong, he would come from New Year’s Eve parties and bring noisemakers and hats for me, his baby brother,” recalls Ma, who dedicates his Tigertail performance to that brother. “There was this vibrancy and energy about him… When we came here, he became very quiet and introspective. We gave him this terrible nickname, “wu hei (烏氣),” which translates from Cantonese to English as the ‘contained airbag.’ It means everything’s penned up.”

For Ko, meanwhile, Tigertail came at a difficult time. Shortly before meeting with Yang about the project, the actress had received an alarming phone call and flown home to Georgia, where her adoptive father was again battling cancer he’d been diagnosed with years earlier. He soon passed, and Ko channeled her grief into the character of Angela, who’s desperate to reconnect with the father she’s long felt she barely knows.

Sharing scenes with Ma, the actress says she was struck by similarities between the actor and her own father, especially in terms of the taciturn nature of the conversations their characters had in Tigertail. “It felt like I was talking to my dad again,” she says simply. “That’s what you’re seeing on screen in those moments.”

“If you watch carefully, we mirror each other a lot,” says Ma of a scene in which his character, Pin-Jui, and daughter Angela (Ko) sip tea. “That’s the tragedy of it; you see these people so similar to one another, and they cannot connect. And we never talked about how we were raising our cups; I didn’t realize until I saw the film. That, you cannot direct. That comes from chemistry.”
Sarah Shatz—Netflix

Perhaps fittingly, filming the most emotional scenes in Tigertail served as a homecoming for Yang, bringing him and his actors back to western Taiwan, to the same urban township where his family once resided. Yang and his crew shot in the same sugar factory where his father and grandmother had labored for years, a chapter of his family history reflected early in the film. For his actors, the sense that they were walking in Yang’s footsteps, and those of his father, was palpable.

“His emotional connection to every step he took with his father on those paths was what we were taking in together every day while filming,” reflects Ma. “He could not help but to connect with it, and I could not help but to be connecting with him.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of something in my entire life,” adds Ko. Her birth mother came to set for the final days of the shoot as well, and Ko felt connected both to her own family and to Yang’s in a way more powerful than she can easily put into words. “I’m glad the last shot of the film is a wide shot,” she recalls. “I think by the time it [arrives,] I was just fully sobbing.”

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