As a second-generation Taiwanese American, “Tigertail” was the movie where I saw representations of my family, and more importantly, myself. Who wouldn’t be excited? When Netflix released the film on April 10, I immediately set to watch it when I had time.
“Tigertail,” which was directed by Alan Yang, tells the life story of a young boy named Pin-Jui from a rural town called Huwei (“tigertail”) in Taiwan. The movie switches back and forth between Pin-Jui’s childhood, early adulthood and his fatherhood.
As a young adult, he is faced with the difficult choice of choosing between his mother’s health and his lover Yuan Lee. Being a filial son, he chooses his mother, ending up in an arranged marriage and being sent across the Pacific to the U.S.
Hard choices make for an easy life, right? At least that is what weightlifting world champion Jerzy Gregorek once said, in essence.
Unfortunately, Pin-Jui’s efforts to allow his mother to retire in luxury leads to an unhappy marriage, a divorce and a dysfunctional relationship with his adult daughter, Angela. This is the story behind the stoic Asian father and his reconciliation with his past.
Brief Historical Background of Taiwan
So, what led the stoic Asian father to become who he is? The answer lies in the sociopolitical context of Taiwan.
In the beginning scene, young Pin-Jui stays with his grandmother in the countryside as his mother tries to find work in the city. One day, two soldiers arrive to interrogate the grandmother. This scene is a symbolic representation of Taiwan shortly after 1949 when the Kuomintang (KMT) took over Taiwan.
The KMT is a political party that lost against the Communist Party of China during the Chinese Civil War between 1927 and 1949. When they fled to Taiwan, they imposed several laws, including the establishment of Mandarin Chinese as the official language. This can be seen in the grandmother’s dissidence against the soldiers. She chooses to reply in Taiwanese Hokkien, receiving a reprimand to learn Mandarin.
Not only can language be used as dissidence, but it also represents generational shifts as well. Both Pin-Jui’s grandmother and mother are seen speaking in Taiwanese because they lived in an era before the KMT. For Pin-Jui, as he grows up to become a young man, he prefers to speak Mandarin Chinese. When Pin-Jui and his mother converse, each would reply in their preferred language.
It’s a sign of assimilation as Pin-Jui speaks in English with his daughter Angela.
The Narrative of the Taiwanese Immigrant Father
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to think of my father at his prime. However, “Tigertail” does a great job of doing that by expanding on the wild things Pin-Jui does for his lover Lee, such as running off from a restaurant before paying. It’s the little things that show a complete picture of who Pin-Jui was before fatherhood.
Director Yang tells Shirley Li from The Atlantic about the importance of capturing the nostalgia for an era that no longer exists. “[N]o matter how much you miss your past and how much emotion you have and how much you wish you can go back in time, you never can,” Yang says.
No matter how much Pin-Jui yearns for the past and his lost opportunity to be with Lee, it can never come true after marrying his boss’s daughter, Zhenzhen, and having Angela as a daughter.
But it’s also this yearning for the past that makes Pin-Jui become the strict, repressive father toward Angela. When she makes a mistake at a piano recital, Pin-Jui orders her not to cry. Because tears won’t solve anything.
The repression of emotions and high expectations for his daughter are only two reasons why their father-daughter relationship crumbles as Angela reaches adulthood.
For Pin-Jui, he only wants what’s best for his daughter, even at the expense of Angela’s hopes and dreams. He can’t see past his own decisions that led him to his dysfunctional family life because it would upend his purpose as a waste. Or worst, a life unfulfilled with regrets.
For Angela, she tries to rebuild her relationship with her father many times, but it never amounts to anything. She can’t understand Pin-Jui because he never disclosed his past — his identity.
As a Taiwanese American who was raised by a single father, Pin-Jui and Angela’s difficult relationship truly resonates with me. There were so many times in the movie when I empathized with Angela’s frustration because I experienced it myself.
For me, “Tigertail” was an eye opener in more ways than one. Not only was I able to relate to the family story culturally, but it told a representation of my story. Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen’s marriage life and divorce highlight the socioeconomic struggles and communication problems that immigrant families face, which are not so different from my parents’ struggles.
“Tigertail” ends with Pin-Jui taking his daughter to Huwei to visit her grandmother’s resting place and to see his old house. Pin-Jui is back where he started, and yet everything is different. Roads have been repaved and buildings have fallen into ruins. What once was can never be again, and as the two stand side by side, they show us how to accept the past and one’s identity.
“The film makes the case for embracing one’s culture rather than denying it — and for understanding that immigrants are more than perpetual foreigners,” Li says. “’Tigertail’ was released during the COVID-19 pandemic — a message to everyone that Asian Americans are humans.”
“It was naive to think that [racism] had ever gone away. But steps need to be taken to just educate people and to make sure they understand, these are human beings,” Yang tells Li.
If anything, “Tigertail” is a reminder to celebrate and reconcile our cultural heritage and mixed identity in a time that pushes us to assimilate. It’s a story that needs to be told, now more than ever.