“Tigertail is the most personal story I have ever worked on. The movie is my imagination of my dad’s memory.”
Alan Yang’s feature debut Tigertail is a mesmerizing allegory of sacrifice. The film follows the life of Pin-Jui through his most intimate memories, from childhood in Taiwan to fatherhood in America. Alan was inspired to make this film after visiting Taiwan with his father, “My dad showed me places that no longer existed. It made me think about what he left behind, what he gave up. The sort of inherent tragedy of leaving somewhere and never being able to get it back. He made that choice for his future children. He made that choice for his mom. He made that choice for other people.” Tigertail returns to the places left behind, a cinematic feat establishing Alan as one of the most compelling filmmakers of our generation.
The film opens with a young Pin-Jui running through lush green rice fields and hiding from the Kuomintang. This scene not only establishes the beauty of this film but Alan’s dedication to telling this story. The production’s rice field expert notified Alan upon arrival in Taipei that within seven days, the fields were going to turn yellow. Production raced to find 16 mm cameras and assemble actors. After wrapping the rigorous shoot, Alan received a devastating call. “My line producer called me and asked if I was sitting down. I knew it wasn’t a good call. There was a problem with the rice field footage. He showed me some pictures and everything is out of focus. All the footage was focused on the blade of grass one inch from the lens, none of the actors’ faces or any of the landscape. We lost our shit,” says Alan. As Alan raced to arrange reshoots against an incoming typhoon, the film was sent to Technicolor in New York. Technicolor assessed corrective scanning could salvage the film. Alan’s editor Daniel Haworth immediately flew to New York. To Alan’s relief, “The next morning Daniel called me after editing for 20 hours and told me 90-95 percent of the footage was usable.”
Alan remembers his father sharing the story that would motivate him to go through such great lengths to film in the countryside of Taiwan. Like Pin-Jui, Alan’s father was raised by a single mother and his father passed away when he was a year old- but was not an only child. “He told me the story when we were on the train back to Taipei. When he was born, everyone in the village told his mom to give him up for adoption because she didn’t have the means to take care of a third child. Grandma was too stubborn to do that. She refused to give up my dad for adoption, so she gave him to some relatives who lived in the countryside for a while. You had to be registered where you lived, and he wasn’t registered there. When the soldiers would come around he would hide in a grain bin. I had to put that in the movie,” says Alan.
Although much of the story is fictionalized, the film’s most charming moments are inspired by true events. Pin-Jui and his mother work in a sugar factory, the same factory Alan’s father worked in as a young man, “We kept scouting all these factories, they just didn’t look real enough. They were too new or shiny. They were too modern. We took the high-speed train down to the middle of the country and went to this crazy old sugar factory my dad actually worked in with my grandma. We ended up shooting there.” The music in this film is a crucial piece of Pin-Jui’s story. Like Pin-Jui, Alan’s father loved Ottis Redding and Yao-Su Yong. “I want to credit Zach Cowie, our music supervisor, who has worked with me on Master of None and Little America,” says Alan.
Devoted to authenticity, casting the lead of this film required Alan to cross the Pacific to find an actor who could execute the growth, from a passionate young-man to a stoic father. Hong-Chi Lee gives the standout performance in Tigertail. “I had seen a reel of his, he had been in Taiwanese movies before. I wanted to meet him and have him run some lines. He was incredibly cool. He was wearing a cool hat. He started reading his lines and he was horrible. We kept working, working, working for like an hour and a half cause I knew he had something. I didn’t get the closure I needed, so I flew back to America and just thought about it. We had a couple of other people in the running, but there was something about Hong-Chi. I don’t know why I just knew he could do it. I just felt like he was the guy and so I cast him,” says Alan. As the romantic lead, Hong-Chi has the charm and dreamy gaze reminiscent of James Dean. Hong-Chi’s progression to Tzi Ma’s toughened patriarch is a performance that carries through generations, leaving much to be anticipated from this breakout star.
“Tigertail is the most personal story I have ever worked on. The movie is my imagination of my dad’s memory,” says Alan. These memories will live on, not only within the Yang family but in Asian American film history. For Alan, “Tigertail is a demonstration and an encapsulation of how much my family means to me, how much I appreciate their sacrifice.”
Tigertail premieres on Netflix April 10th, 2020.
Images provided by Netflix and Alan Yang