With ambitious and emotional scope and an elegantly muted central performance from Tzi Ma, Alan Yang’s debut feature TIGERTAIL is a reflective and wistful immigration story that attempts to carry more than its pastiche styling can bear in a slender 90 minutes.

TIGERTAIL oscillates between the present and past, articulated through the extensive memory-flashbacks of Pin-Jui, an ageing immigrant in New York. As a young man in 1950s Taiwan, Pin-Jui works alongside his widowed mother for meagre factory wages while dreaming of a better life in the USA. Pin-Jui in his puckish youth is very unlike his older self. He is at ease with himself and others, which is most noticeable through a playful romance with his childhood friend Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang)

Young Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) is offered an arranged marriage to Zhenzhen (Fiona Fu), whose father will sponsor their emigration to the USA. The real price of this bargain is, of course, that for Pin-Jui to live his dream, he must leave behind his true love, Yuan, as well as his mother, and the only country he has known. Despite having little in common, Zhenzhen and Pin-Jui marry, beginning their new life and new family in New York.

The years pass in a blur of drudgery and stability slowly emerges, but Pin-Jui is increasingly emotionally distant. Dedicated only to work, Pin-Jui becomes estranged from his wife and adult daughter. After years of fractured family bonds and misdirected stoicism, an older Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) begins to reflect on his decisions and the past, seeming to yearn silently for redemption and reconnection. TIGERTAIL continuously goes back and forth across fifty years, unspooling what it took for Pin-Jui to realise his American dream and yet made him so remote and unreachable to everyone around him.

The crux of TIGERTAIL is the emotional toll of the immigrant experience. Specifically, it is about how that experience pertains to both sacrifice and responsibility. Pin-Jui not only sacrifices his home and relationships in Taiwan but further alienates himself from his family to deliver stability through hard work in America. Because this is a sacrifice deliberately and consciously chosen, it gnaws at Pin-Jui later in life to create a sense of regret and nostalgia.

Most recently in Asian-American cinema, Lulu Wang’s THE FAREWELL alighted on similar themes with touching tenderness and an emphasis on second-generation cultural estrangement, a theme which only now seems to be emerging into the mainstream. The first-generation experience foregrounded in TIGERTAIL is a similarly underexplored and rich subject. In spotlighting this particular immigration story at this particular moment Yang’s debut is admirable. The pairing of this story with a measured performance by Tzi Ma as the older Pin-Jui is also striking. His restraint makes each small glance and movement carry a deliberate weight and weariness.

However, while the content of TIGERTAIL should be rich for mining, it frequently retreats into an appropriated form that highlights its clunky writing. For instance, it is apparent early on that Alan Yang has fashioned elements on some of the most acclaimed New Taiwanese Cinema (with additional hints of Wong Kar Wai). This influence is especially noticeable in the nostalgic flashback segments: Taiwan in the past is shown as a vivid Brighter Summer Day (compared to a drained-out bluish hue of the present.) This colouring scenes with a blanketing ‘pastness’ via stylistic connotations is a familiar trope. We know we are in the past not only by noticing the fashion changes in costumes but also by the very hues and tints of the clothing itself. Doing this signals that all ‘past’ scenes are taking place within a subjective memory rather than historical reality – but with the added heavy dose of homage.

Meanwhile the ‘present’ is without any stylistic connotations of its own, meaning it appears that it could have taken place any time from around 2000 to 2020. The past is shot on lush film, with the present on stark digital. Even during night scenes, the past is brighter, occupied by spots of colour and beams of lights in the shadows.

TIGERTAIL’s ‘past’ is at times disconcerting because unlike the films he is referencing Yang does not seem concerned with representing or critiquing history through a constructed ‘past’, but merely evoking it as a set of styles and connotations. For instance, in the opening scene, Kuomintang soldiers appear to search a house, indicating something of the social and political situation of Taiwan in this period. Still, this opening is afforded no other relevance (or explanation) to all the following narrative beyond suggesting that Taiwan is somehow repressive. History in TIGERTAIL is emptied of its politics, specificity and contradictions, replaced instead simply with a rose-tinted mood.

Alan Yang is collating the stylistic elements of epic glacial dramas of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien in these nostalgic ‘past’ scenes, but 90 minutes for this amount of emotional heft and story doesn’t create much depth, and the result feels stunted. TIGERTAIL affords little time to spin out and observe the characters within the settings and story. Unfortunately, the film feels like it is cramming in expository dialogue to push forward the narrative at all the moments it should instead be lingering. Ultimately this ‘past’ only serves to remind viewers of better films than the one they’re watching, while the ‘present’ is noticeably, agonisingly, conventional and simplistic.

This shortcoming exposes the fundamental flimsiness of Yang’s script: it wants to be character-driven but swiftly pushes forward to get to each successive plot-point, eventually rendering the deeply personal as impersonal, and a series of complex life-altering choices as merely deterministic. The past is optimistically gleaming and sensual, while the present is bland and bleak. In accentuating so starkly these two different times, Yang is clumsily engaging in the dialectic of past and present that underlies all acts of remembrance – when one feels nostalgia it is usually because of uneasiness or discomfort with the present, and so the past haunts the present as a ghost. We are invited to share in this seductively styled yearning and remembering, but only as a mood to be experienced, untethered from rounded characters with a believable agency or interior lives.

TIGERTAIL has moments of emotional resonance, and it is refreshing to see immigrant and diaspora stories make a long-overdue emergence in mainstream American cinema. However, Alan Yang’s debut is undermined by an overwrought, pensive mood that feels unearned for its breezy pace. The generic styling seems unable to step out of the shadows of its influences. Like Pin-Jui, the narrative becomes a prisoner to the past and struggles to develop the present.