Five years ago, Master of None co-creator Alan Yang co-wrote the episode “Parents” alongside creative partner Aziz Ansari. In it, Ansari’s character, the Indian-American Dev, and his Taiwanese-American friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) discuss the sacrifices their parents made in coming to the United States, and the specific sort of silence with which they’ve both grown up. As first-gen immigrants, they’re accustomed to gaps in their parents’ biographies and to unanswered questions about their pasts. They help their parents fix glitches with their cellphones and laptops and they’re berated for not calling very often, but they’ve sort of resigned themselves to the impossibility of a closer relationship or more emotional honesty.
Well, sort of; there is still some self-effacing Millennial sarcasm here:
Dev: What? What is going on right now? We can’t have dinner with them again. I’m not trying to hang out with Peter Chang on the regs.
Brian: No, I just wanted to do one dinner. I don’t want, like, a serious relationship with my father.
I was really knocked back by this episode of Master of None for how much it synced up with my own experiences with my parents, and for that reason I was both excited—and trepidatious—about watching Tigertail. Yang’s directorial debut, which started streaming on Netflix in April, basically takes the core idea of “Parents” and expands it to a 91-minute feature film. And the impressive thing the film does, and how it expands the conversation started in “Parents” with an admission like this …
Brian: Like, what an insane journey. My dad used to bathe in a river, and now he drives a car that talks to him.
… Is by flipping the film’s perspective so that the focus is no longer us, the first-gen kids. The primary viewpoint shared and explored in Tigertail is that of our parents, of who they were and where they lived before they became who they are, here with us. What were their likes? Dislikes? Dreams? Aspirations? Who were their parents? Their friends? Their first loves? What was their first apartment like in the U.S.? Their first house, if they could afford it? How much did any of that matter to them? How much should it matter to us? If “Parents” was about our assumptions, and how we reconcile growing up “American” while feeling tied to somewhere else, Tigertail is about the weight of those memories, and about the smothering sort of nostalgia, and about how we mistake respectability and success for fulfillment and happiness.
SPOILERS FOR TIGERTAIL FOLLOW
Tigertail tells the life story of Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma, of The Farewell), beginning with his childhood in Taiwan, among the rice fields where his grandparents lived and worked. After his father’s death and as his mother tries to find a job to support them, Pin-Jui feels lost and alone. He imagines his parents in the swaying green fields; he’s confused as to why his grandmother makes him hide from the threatening, Mandarin-speaking Kuomintang soldiers; and he’s admonished by her when he begins to cry. “Crying never solves anything. Be strong. Never let anyone see you cry,” his grandmother says, and Pin-Jui takes the message to heart. Years later, after his own daughter forgets a portion of a piece during a piano recital and cries on the way home, Pin-Jui’s only reaction is to chide her, too. Those lessons from his childhood were meant to protect him, and it’s the way he shows love—no matter that he’s in a different time and in a different place, speaking to a daughter who needs a different kind of support.
The movie bounces around timelines in this way, providing translated subtitles for the Mandarin and Taiwanese being spoken onscreen and tracing the stages of Pin-Jui’s life. We see his reunion with his mother and how they settle back in their hometown of Huwei (translated to “Tiger Tail”), where they both work at a factory doing manual labor. The job has aged his mother Minghua (Yang Kuei-mei), and Pin-Jui (now a young man, played by Hong Chi-Lee) longs to provide for her, to move them out of their small two-room shack. Meanwhile, he’s also romantically involved with the wealthy Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), a friend from his childhood. They listen to Chinese rock music; they dance all night at a local bar; they meet in secret to fool around. Pin-Jui loves Yuan—but when his mother almost loses her hand during an accident at the factory, Pin-Jui doesn’t think twice. He agrees to marry the factory owner’s daughter, Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), and relocate with her to America for a chance at the famed “better life.” Soon, he’ll send for his mother, he figures, and they’ll all live together. They’ll thrive. After they’re married, as Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen are driving to the airport, he glimpses Yuan in the street, and takes one last look at her out of the car’s back window. He never told her was leaving, and with that final glance, he’s gone.
The idea of silence as a means of protection is all throughout Tigertail, and as “Parents” noted—and as The Big Sick noted, and The Farewell noted, and Crazy Rich Asians noted, and Hala noted, it’s a common feature of first-gen stories because it’s a common feature of certain swathes of the immigrant experience. What is the purpose of talking about the past? Of Pin-Jui making clear that he only married Zhenzhen to provide for his mother? That Zhenzhen only married Pin-Jui as a way to make it to the United States? Both of those are individual sacrifices, but their marriage hurts them, too. These characters don’t really fall in love after their arranged marriage, as Ashima and Ashoke did in The Namesake. The only thing they have in common is their life together. When they eventually get divorced, Pin-Jui resents Zhenzhen, telling her she’s “spoiled by America.” But how much does Pin-Jui, who was never able to convince his mother to move to the U.S., blame himself for all this? For leaving behind a woman he loved? For making plans that involved others, without telling them first? “I thought this is what you wanted,” he beseeches Minghua during one of their calls, but she’s firm in her refusal to leave her homeland behind: “It’s what you wanted, not what I wanted.” What kind of guilt does a statement like that inspire? How much does the realization that you made a sacrifice for someone who never wanted you to make it shatter you inside?
Yang is very thoughtful in how he considers sacrifice throughout Tigertail, particularly because of how he undermines the idea that giving of yourself in such a way is an explicitly or universally Asian idea. He rejects the suggestion that every single Chinese or Taiwanese person alive would feel intrinsically, all-encompassingly beholden to Confucian ritual by making clear that Pin-Jui is, in many ways, an outlier. After their divorce, we see Zhenzhen with another partner (James Saito, of Always Be My Maybe), with whom she laughs openly and frequently. We learn that Pin-Jui’s and Zhenzhen’s son Bobby is traveling the world with his band; clearly he doesn’t feel pressured to stay by his parents’ side. When Pin-Jui reconnects with Yuan (played in her later years by Joan Chen, of Twin Peaks), she is happily married, and gently gives him some advice about parenting. None of this is to say that the way Pin-Jui lived is wrong, necessarily, but instead that the pressure he put upon himself—and that he put so thoroughly upon his eldest, Angela (Christine Ko)—is understandable, but not entirely universal.
There is some poetic circularity, then, to how deeply separate Angela feels from her father, but how much she mimics him—how much she has molded herself in his image as a way of pantomiming emotional closeness. She tries to express sorrow for the death of Pin-Jui’s mother, the grandmother she didn’t really know; he rejects it. When Pin-Jui disrespects her boyfriend and she tries to say that he makes her happy, she’s visibly wounded by her father’s “You really think that’s enough?” We see father and daughter both eating meals alone, in quiet, dark rooms. They eventually have lunch together, during which they barely speak—“I don’t know how to talk to you. I never have,” Angela admits, before walking out. The barrier Angela feels in Tigertail, the one that we only really saw from Dev’s and Brian’s view in “Parents,” is more discernible now that we also have Pin-Jui’s perspective. Angela’s frustration hits hard, but so does how lost Pin-Jui looks.
So when Pin-Jui finally does speak to his daughter about his past, it feels like the first time he’s put himself forward. As a child, he pushed aside his sadness over his father’s death and his mother’s absence so as to strengthen himself, as his grandmother suggested. As a young man, he abandoned Yuan to provide for his mother, although she never asked for it. As an adult, he failed in really knowing Zhenzhen, resenting her for the choice he made. “There is no turning back now,” Pin-Jui had said years before, and he’s continued in this way: denying what he wants, and who he is. Finally, with Angela, he lets her in. “There are many things I never told you,” he starts, and then they’re on a trip to Taiwan. When they arrive in Huwei, and when Pin-Jui shows her the now-reclaimed-by-nature shack where he and his mother used to live, Pin-Jui finally allows himself to cry for what he lived through, and what he left behind.
Throughout the film, Yang presents us Pin-Jui and Angela together, but apart: separated during the car ride home while Angela cries over her piano recital failure; separated while eating lunch together; separated at a Chinese New Year party Angela throws. But in front of Pin-Jui’s former home, as he weeps, Angela puts a hand on his shoulder. Yang frames the pair in an open window and then moves the camera backward, showing us the collapsed inside of the shack and the plants growing there, using the distance between us and them to actually push father and daughter together. Yang continues the conversation he started in “Parents” with that moment of intimacy, and his consideration of sacrifice and how it reverberates throughout generations and locations positions Tigertail as the newest entry in the first-gen cinematic subgenre that is steadily, impressively growing.
Tigertail started streaming on Netflix on April 10, 2020. Master of None is available on Netflix.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center