Last year, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, starring Awkwafina, tapped into Asian-Americans’ “third generation” experience of cultural dislocation and yearning: a need to come to terms with the old country of their grandparents’ time. In that film, Awkwafina’s middle-aged dad was played by Tzi Ma, whose gentle, sensitive face mutely spoke volumes about hardship and sacrifice. He plays a very similar role in this heartfelt, flawed debut feature from Taiwanese-American director Alan Yang – whose track record is in TV comedy, having written and produced for the hit show Parks and Recreation.
It is a very different work: serious and personal, clearly fictionalising at some level aspects of the director’s own family experience, and perhaps self-conscious in a way that successful comedy isn’t. Sometimes the transitions and flashbacks are a bit on the nose, and the modern-day sequences have a TV-movie look to them. And yet there is a real emotional surge in the way Yang conjures the past.
Tzi Ma is Pin-Jui, a divorced Taiwanese guy living in New York, who has a tense relationship with his grownup daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). He has just returned to the city, having made a melancholy journey back to his hometown of Huwei (or “Tigertail”) to attend the funeral of his mother (Kuei-Mei Yang) whom he could never persuade to join him in the US. The experience triggers a rush of memories: living with grandmother as a child under Chinese rule, and then as a young man (played by Hong-chi Lee), full of dreams and swagger, in love with his childhood sweetheart, Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), with whom he dances to American-style pop music in the local bars. But, above everything, he dreams of leaving Taiwan for America, and hanging out with Faye Dunaway. Yuan loves America, too, being a fan of Otis Redding. But Pin-Jui is very poor.
A terrible choice presents itself. The manager of the factory where Pin-Jui and his mum have jobs takes him aside and asks him to have dinner with his demure daughter, Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), and tells him that, if they get married, he will pay for them to travel and get set up in the States. It is a powerful moment when Pin-Jui, having always been ashamed to take Yuan back to the humble place he shares with his widowed mother, finally does so, and Yang indirectly suggests that this is the point at which they have sex for the first time, but also when Pin-Jui is trying to show Yuan how desperately poor he is, so she will understand his need to get away at all costs.
And so Pin-Jui’s whole life is founded on a lie: a loveless marriage to a gentle, sensitive person who senses down deep that something is wrong but, schooled in the wifely duties of submission, simply thinks that all marriages are as tough and unhappy as hers. Zhenzhen’s one friend is fellow Taiwanese Peijing (Cindera Che), who is quite unsentimental about her own unsatisfactory marriage. When Zhenzhen confides to her that she and her husband have nothing in common, she says: “Eventually, your life together is what you have in common.” That is a grim thought – and yet many modern-day Americans, immigrants or otherwise, have seen their parents make the best of things in just this way.
The scenes of childhood and youth work very well, but the modern-day part of the film is directed in an oddly flat way, and the all-important scenes with Angela have little of the charge that Yang puts into the earlier sequences. It is as if memory is a vital ingredient that makes the drama live, with a throb that the here-and-now doesn’t have.
Yet there is one very good moment. Poor Angela, as a teenager, has to play the piano at a school concert with her parents in the audience, and makes a mess of it – to her own horror and her parents’ suppressed mortification and disapproval. Pin-Jui harshly tells Angela not to cry, just as his own tough grandmother told him. And so the cycle of pain continues. A sombre, well-acted film about sacrifice and regret.
• Tigertail is available on Netflix from 10 April.