“Tigertail” — a Netflix original movie not to be confused with the hit series “Tiger King" — marks an earnest, listless feature directing debut for Alan Yang, who has found success as a writer-producer on TV’s “Parks and Recreation” and co-creator of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None.” The movie’s the story of a Taiwanese man, long in America, contemplating his life’s choices with muted regret, and it is based on Yang’s father. Therein may lie the problem.
“To say the film is personal would be a vast understatement,” Yang writes in a director’s statement included in promotional materials, and while personal can lead to deeply felt storytelling, personal can also get in the way, especially when the subjects are one’s parents. What is mythic to a child can seem banal to an outsider, and it takes a skilled artist to get an audience to truly see those shadows looming on the cave wall of one’s growing up. Bluntly put, Yang’s not there yet.
He certainly has the cast to put it over. Tzi Ma, a familiar talent from American film and TV, has the central role of Grover, born Pin-Jui in China-controlled Taiwan but an immigrant to New York as a young man. Now on the edge of old age, Grover is a sourpuss whose wife (Fiona Fu) has divorced him and whose relationship with grown daughter Angela (Christine Ko) is a mixture of brutal advice and awkward silences. “Tigertail” shuttles back and forth between the main character‘s youth, middle age, and the modern day, trying to make a case for his miserableness.
The flashback scenes are enlivened by the actors playing the young Grover (Hong-Chi Lee) and his great love, Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang). The hero hasn’t sunk into despondency yet and is alive with the ardor of youth and big plans, and the scenes between the two have a burnished, sensual intimacy. A sacrifice involving Grover’s mother (Kuei-Mei Yang) and a chance to emigrate forces him into a loveless arranged marriage with Zhenzhen (played as a young woman by Kunjue Li), who struggles with loneliness and a negligent husband once the two are in America.
It’s tempting to see “Tigertail” in the tradition of the Ingmar Bergman classic “Wild Strawberries,” with its emotionally constipated hero looking back over a lifetime of mistakes and missed connections. But the comparison only highlights Yang’s weaknesses as a first-time feature director: flat dialogue that mistakes subtext for text, glacially paced scenes that lack dramatic momentum, stolidly unimaginative camerawork, and a central character so unsympathetic that you end up siding with his ex-wife and daughter. As I said, personal can sometimes get in the way.
On the flip side, “Tigertail” is, like the recent “The Farewell” and the lesser-seen “Ms. Purple,” a tale of fraught family dynamics that will seem like home truths to Asian-American audiences, among others. It’s a treat to see the elegant Joan Chen (“The Last Emperor,” “Twin Peaks”) in a small but key role. And in his film’s final scenes Yang does achieve an emotional power that, intentionally or not, comes within shouting distance of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s dramas of the bonds and tensions between fathers and daughters. Sometimes you have to make the movie that means the most to you before you can get to the one that works best for everyone else.
Written and directed by Alan Yang. Starring Tzi Ma, Christine Ko. Streaming on Netflix. 91 minutes. PG (some thematic elements, language, smoking, brief sensuality). In English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin, with subtitles.