Anyone watching “Tigertail” because of writer-director Alan Yang’s role in creating “Master of None” may be surprised to find that there’s nothing funny about it. With time, however, “Tigertail” develops a case for its modest aims. A slow-burn immigrant drama with visual polish to spare, the movie molds the leisurely plot into a lush, moving portrait of American dreams undercut by harsh reality checks. Yang infuses his earnest, semi-fictionalized story (inspired by his own father’s experiences) with the evocative narrative traditions of modern Asian cinema, from Wong Kar Wai to Edward Yang, resulting in a rich and intimate atmosphere at every turn. While the movie doesn’t achieve the narrative mastery of its influences, Yang’s first feature has a touching emotional through line grounded in authenticity.
At its center is a familiar journey. Growing up in ‘60s-era Taiwan, young factory worker Ping-Juri endures the frustrations of an arranged marriage, his demanding mother, and his mounting desire to find success in America. Decades later, he’s divorced, estranged from his grown daughter Angela (Christine Ko), and bitter about his failed ambition. Hong-Chi Li plays the younger version of the character while Tzi Ma (last seen as the determined father in “The Farewell”) plays the older man, and the two actors develop a fascinating juxtaposition as the movie shifts between two eras to explain how the romantic dreamer devolved into an icy, cynical shell.
The answer to that mystery is telegraphed early on, and “Tigertail” doesn’t exactly build to some grand revelation about what went wrong. Instead, it lingers in the textures of its dueling eras, mapping out Ping Jui’s early childhood romance with Yuan (Yo-hsing Fang) as it coincides with his growing affinity for American pop culture and his desire to experience it first-hand. Yang and cinematographer Nigel Bluck (“The Peanut Butter Falcon”) work wonders in conjuring the idealism of Ping Jui’s memories, from a touching nighttime duet with Yuan that finds them singing Otis Redding by the water, to a vivid dance club number that feels like an outtake from “In the Mood for Love.”
It’s a testament to Netflix that this small-screen production still managed to shoot on 16mm film, as the grainy imagery plays a significant role in conveying the porous nature of the memories at hand. The accuracy of Yuan’s recollections may be suspect, but like the pivotal scenes of “Moonlight,” Yang shows how profound connections develop into dreamlike concoctions with time once the people experiencing them lose touch.
These moments draw a striking contrast to Yuan’s experiences once he’s forced into an arranged marriage with Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) and decides to defy his mother’s wishes, dragging his young bride to ’70-era New York in a desperate bid to make something of himself. Instead, he winds up with a dead-end job at a drab corner store, while his pregnant wife quickly tires of their routine. Yang gives us a handful of scenes from the waning years of the couple’s marriage, as Ping Jui becomes a cruel, demanding parent so hard on his wife and children that they eventually want nothing to do with him.
When modern-day Ping Jui visits his grown daughter, “Tigertail” strains to make her conundrum as deep and involving as its main character. Unfortunately, despite Ko’s formidable investment in the role, the adult Angela’s own marital troubles feel shoehorned into the plot, providing an all-too-handy excuse for father and daughter to approach a reconciliation. Once that process begins, however, the movie opens up to a remarkable new passage, as Ma’s layered performance fuses the temporal gap by allowing some measure of the young man from the past to return to the surface.
On a continuum with “The Farewell,” Yang’s drama taps into the personal connotations of the immigrant experience by burrowing inside it, evoking the excitement of new opportunities in tandem with the cold reality that bubbles up in their wake. As the older Ping Jui learns to deal with his past through the contemporary tools at his disposal — including a charming Facebook search — “Tigertail” solidifies into a poignant exploration of midlife crisis through an underrepresented filter.
However, while “The Farewell” explored the impact of an older generation on the assimilated one that followed it, Yang unearths the other side of the equation: the travails of an older generation that was once young and eager to explore the world, only to realize that it wouldn’t embrace them on equal terms. With those ideas in play, “Tigertail” risks slipping into familiar sentimental beats, but manages to transcend them with its gorgeous, cathartic finale. The final shot — possibly the best frame-within-a-frame composition this side of “The Searchers” — finds a man forever tied to his past and making peace with its immovable boundaries, imperfections and all.
“Tigertail” is now streaming on Netflix.