One of the comparisons I often use when describing a film with an unoriginal, but effective, story, is that to apple pie–while it isn’t a groundbreaking new recipe, when executed properly, apple pie is delicious. I found myself thinking quite a bit about apple pie while watching Netflix’s most recent movie release, Tigertail, written and directed by Alan Yang, known mostly for his writing and directing work for television shows like Master of None, The Good Place, and Parks and Recreation.
As I have stated in previous reviews, the combination of both writing and directing is an indication that a yet untold story is about to be thrust out into the world for the first time. And for a premiere directorial feature, going with an “apple pie” approach is nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, it tells me that the filmmaker is smart enough to be reserved and focus on what really matters: using their own unique voice.
For a work that comes from a writer witha mainly comedic background, Alan Yang’s Tigertail is a sober affair focusing on the life of Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee); everything from his early youth on a rice farm with his grandmother, to leaving the love of his life, Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), in order to marry Zhen Zhen (Kunjue Li/Fiona Fu) for the opportunity to move to America, is explored. The film is also structured as a series of flashbacks, with a now elderly Pin-Jui reflecting on his life, and his now fragmented relationship with his distant adult daughter Angela (Christine Ko).
The general plot is certainly “apple pie,” in the sense that it will be nothing new to an audience familiar with cinema of the last fifty or so years. Pin-Jui is a poor man, working and living with his mother, and falls in love with Yuan, who was once the young girl at the next-door farm. Despite their love, they cannot be married, since she is from a rich family. Pin-Jui then decides to take his boss’s offer to marry his daughter, Zhen Zhen, in exchange for a one-way ticket to America. The rest of the movie is a retrospective on the repercussions of this decision, made for money and opportunity, rather than happiness. There are many scenes of the classic struggle to adjust with American life, and several music-driven montages of Pin-Jui and Zhen Zhen performing mundane tasks in order to build something better for themselves, all the while growing further apart.
Unfortunately, despite the honest themes at play in Tigertail, the film is an underwritten amalgamation of vignettes from Pin-Jui’s life, which hardly explore any of the cultural impact on the events of the story, or do much to explain his cold and emotionless demeanor towards his daughter. Most of the small stories told through flashbacks are played out and obvious, without the flare of originality to keep my interest. Each time a conflict arises, like Pin-Jui’s grandmother hiding him from the Chinese military on their Taiwanese farm, or the idea that he and Yuan cannot marry because of their difference in wealth, Alan Yang is either too afraid or incapable of expounding further to create a world we can believe and become invested in. As a result, much of the film feels like it exists on a stage, rather than in the real world.
Well produced and directed but lacking any kind of substance from its characters outside cookie cutter dialogue and typical Hollywood schmaltz, Tigertail is a big disappointment. What could have been a compelling tale of the difficulties between a first-generation American child and their Taiwanese father is pushed aside for an overused story frightened of taking its themes any deeper than the surface.