Tigertail review – a sorrowful East Asian-American tale that is filled with unfeigned regret

By M.N. Miller
Published: April 10, 2020 (Last updated: March 17, 2023)
Tigertail (Netflix) review - a sorrowful South Asian-American tale that is filled with unfeigned regret


Tigertail is a story no different from thousands, but that is far too often forgotten — a sorrowful East Asian-American tale filled with unfeigned regret.

This review of Tigertail (Netflix) is spoiler-free. The film debuted on Netflix on April 10, 2020.

The funny thing about dreamers, especially those who grow up in a working-class family or household, is they want more out of life and will do anything to snatch it out of the sky where their heads are always perched. Something like happiness is sacrificed along the way, which doesn’t matter because to them, it was just a made-up word anyway. Well, until years later, when you realize, too late, that’s all that matters. Tigertail is that kind of, you know, tale, a sorrowful East Asian one, deeply felt, that breaks you down, allowing you to appreciate what you have and long for what you don’t.

That romantic is Grover, who grew up in a difficult childhood in the once (and always) political unrest of a transitioning Taiwan. When he grows up into a young man in the 1960s (then played by City of Last Things’ Hong-Chi Lee) who wants to head to America so he can make something of himself and get his mother out of her factory with unsafe working conditions, to do that, he takes his boss up on his offer to pay for his trip, as long as he accepts an arranged marriage with his daughter Zhenzhen (Berlin, I Love You’s Kunjue Li), and leave the budding romance Yuan (newcomer Yo-Hsing Fang) behind. When Grover turns old and grey (now played by the great Tzi Ma, recently of The Farewell), he looks back at his life, wondering what could have been.

Writer and director Alan Yang’s (Apple TV+’s Little America) script is filmed with a lyrical poignancy that, for mainstream audiences, could come across as simplistic — I could see my family members saying, “What was the point?” as the credits roll if I was watching it with them. You have to look closely, and there is a great deal running under the surface that goes on to the naked eye. Life is fleeting, short, and what you make of it and the sacrifices and hardships are so often overlooked (Yang, and his Master of None writing partner Aziz Ansari, had a wonderful scene about that when a character refuses to pick up his father at the airport because he wanted to play video games). The best stories are told and told with even greater authenticity. Young reached that goal with a vibrant eye that translates the sacrifices lost.

Tigertail has a lot in common with Mira Nair’s The Namesake, also about an arranged marriage of an East Indian couple who come to America with their values and traditions. In a similar role to Irrfan Khan’s, Ma’s role as the older, regretfully wiser Grover has crashed from the clouds and is more serious-minded, even grave. He shares the same qualities with his grown daughter Angela (Christine Ko), creatingtension like watching two people choosing “rock” in an endless game of rock, paper, scissors. The script only lets them come to an understanding briefly, and I wish the hand gave them more time to explore that father-daughter relationship when the walls come down.

Ma’s pragmatic outlook on life, while trying to push those values onto his daughter as justification for the choices he made, is common but no less meaningful for the story set here. While the film is more poetic than overtly in-depth, much like an extended episode of the Young’s America series, it can affect your feeling of the film depending on your disposition at the moment. That doesn’t make its impact less meaningful and reminded me of ’90s arthouse independent cinema that’s upfront, and its visceral score, moody score, highlights honesty.

The great Gene Siskel once said, and I’ll repeat those words here about what I feel Alan Yang’s film has accomplished, is that what only the very best movies can do — transports you to another time and place, several. The encapsulation of multiple moments in different countries and eras sets the tone and mood authentically so that few films have on the streaming giant. Tigertail is a coming-of-age film layered with multi-generational tales filled with unfeigned regret.

It’s a story that is no different from thousands, far too often forgotten. It’s an East Asian story that’s as American as apple pie.

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