Thursday, 23 April 2020

Movie review: Tigertail, dir Alan Yang (2020)

What a find! This delicate family drama offers up a burning portrait of otherwise ordinary reality taking in four generations of a family of Taiwanese. It is focalised mainly through the character of Pin-Jui (played by Hong Chi-Lee for the scenes when he is a young man, and by Tzi Ma for the scenes where he is a man in his late 50s or early 60s). In fact three actors play Pin-Jui: there are some scenes at the beginning of the film when Pin-Jui as a child is shown playing in the countryside – among the rice paddies and by a stream – with a new friend, Yuan, whom, later when he is a young man, he will meet under different circumstances.

The two young people spend time together and sometimes they dance to rock-n-roll. The transition from nine-year-old to 20-year-old is handled with no unnecessary flourish; the narrative skips quickly, like an old-fashioned record hitting an obstacle in its groove, and suddenly you are in a small bar and Pin-Jui is dancing with a svelte Yuan (played at this age by Yo-Hsing Fang). Crisp, efficient storytelling operates in its own bright register of fact and feeling.

All without much introspection (perhaps this is the missing piece at the root of Pin-Jui’s dilemma) though, paradoxically, the filmmakers dwell a good deal on the past. The idea of the hometown is, for example, elaborated early on. In Japanese the word is “furusato” which is often, in their cultural products, a place of pilgrimage. The Mandarin word for “hometown” is “jiaxiang” though the ideograms used differ in Taiwan and in China.

But the story mainly focuses on Pin-Jui’s and his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). He is not very good at expressing his feelings and she, who grew up in the US, finds it hard to talk with her father. For many, such a low-key premise might appear at first glance likely to place too great a burden on the spectator – intergenerational conflict in a Chinese-American family might seem to be a too-simple prism through which to view the world – but there is suspense and the film manages to keep you guessing right to the end.

A lot of it is set in interiors. With this kind of contextualising ‘Tigertail’ resembles works coming out of the Japanese cinema, where the individual is mainly seen in the light of where he or she lives, where they work, and who they associate with.

The film is careful about how it makes plain for the viewer differences between the Asian and the Western approach to forming identity. In one scene, Pin-Jui and Angela are shown standing outside a house. The camera sees them through a window and then tracks back, through another window, so that there are now two frames outlining the two figures. An image that uses the house as a frame within a frame, all within a movie shown on your TV screen inside your house. So, you as the viewer are inside the film as much as Pin-Jui or Angela are inside it. You have your own family stories and they serve to define you in ways that are predictable and commonplace, but that are the more special for that. Place and tradition, emphasised throughout the movie, influence people across generational divides.

The movie also provides what seemed to me (though I’m by no means an expert) to be an uncomplicated yet elegant version of Taiwan’s history. This includes, of course, the lure of Modernity as embodied by the USA. It is a good exponent of the genre of cross-cultural cinema. 

No comments: