Interview: Alan Yang on Finding the Feeling of In-Between in “Tigertail”

In 2016, Alan Yang was traveling in China for work when he surreptitiously called his father while he was in Shanghai to ask whether he’d want to want to go to Taiwan. He was on top of the world after winning his first Emmy for his work on “Master of None,” which he co-created with Aziz Ansari, so it was only natural that he’d want to see more of it, suddenly struck with the desire to visit the country where his parents spent so much of their lives before he was born, having little memory of his one previous trip when he was seven to attend a funeral. His father obliged, going back for the first time in a while himself, and after rarely speaking about his home country in America, Yang saw his dad come alive as he hailed cabs in the city and took him to the sugar factory where he had worked with his mother, as if no time had gone by at all.

Yang was inspired to start writing his feature debut “Tigertail” shortly after and while the drama is only loosely inspired by specific personal experience, it has an intimate understanding of how the past continually lives in the present as it tells of Pin-Jui (played in his youth by Hong Chi-Lee and later by Tzi Ma), who moves from a small village in Taiwan to New York City in his twenties, marrying his factory boss’ daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li, and later Fiona Fu) to make the money to pay for a new life abroad. It’s a painful decision at the time when Pin-Jui’s heart belongs to another, Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang, and later Joan Chen), with whom he shares much more in common, such as a passion for pop music and dancing, but just one of many personal sacrifices that both he and Zhenzhen endure in order to extend their families’ legacies of extending to their children a brighter future than the one they had.

While setting their own ambitions aside is a rare point of connection for Pin-Jui and Zhenzhen, it creates a disconnect for their children, who know only of the life that their father provided for after working his way up in convenience stores, and just as Yang was able to see so clearly through his father’s eyes during their travels in Taiwan what he gave up to move to America, he conveys so impressively the way the most haunting losses can be the most imperceptible between generations for families of immigrants, honing in on Pin-Jui’s relationship with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko), who can’t understand her father’s inability to express his feelings. Even if one wasn’t aware that the writer/director hadn’t insisted on shooting in the same places where his father took him in real life, there’s an unmistakable authenticity to “Tigertail” emotionally, with every scene becoming a revelation when it seems like Yang is discovering things about his own history for the first time himself.

Still, “Tigertail” is the work of a wise storyteller, slyly riffing on some of the soulful aesthetic techniques of the filmmakers whose formative years intersected with Pin-Jui’s in Asia while evolving into something all its own, beautifully underlining its main character’s experience of finally starting to act on his instincts later in life. With the film’s premiere on Netflix this week, where it can be streamed right now, Yang spoke about the shrewd creative choices that were able to open up such a personal story so it could be felt by all and how he was able to connect when making a film largely in a different language than his own.

What made this the right time to tell this story? It isn’t only personal, but your feature directorial debut.

It really is just a gut feeling, like you wake up in the morning and what are you feeling most passionate about? When you’re in the shower, where does your mind wander to, or when you’re driving around, what are you thinking about? I just couldn’t stop thinking about these characters and the idea of this multigenerational story and how our parents’ generation’s experiences in their home countries influenced their relationships with their kids and how a person’s regret for the past can lead to redemption in the end, so I felt like this was the movie to make.

Was it a challenge to crack the structure of this? There’s a real fluidity between the past and present in the way you use memory.

That’s a tribute to our amazing post team, [led by] Daniel Haworth, a wonderful editor, and he and I have worked together on many, many projects before and he’s a wonderful, wonderful editor. From script phase to shooting to editing, the movie did evolve and it kind of tells you what it wants to be and what is the real heart of the movie is. What ended up being really strong is the interplay between young Ping-Jui and older Ping-Jui, the Hong Chi-Lee version and the Tzi Ma version [respectively] and just bouncing back and forth between those time periods, interlacing his relationships with the four most important women in his life – his mother, the woman he was in love with, the woman he married and his daughter. There’s a rhythm there that is unconventional, but ultimately makes sense emotionally.

It was refreshing to me that this was a father-daughter story rather than a father-son story, knowing that this was inspired by your dad to some degree. Was that the instinct from the start?

Yeah, it always was and I was inspired by my real-life family because my sister have not always had the smoothest relationship and I always hoped for them to see things more eye to eye, so it just felt more real to me, even though obviously I could’ve switched the genders at some point. It just felt like a genuine story.

Logistically, was it difficult to set up an American production shoot in Taiwan?

Yeah, there were definitely challenges and it’s always a challenge when there’s a language barrier when you’re going to a different country. Even me working with the actors, it was me communicating through a translator because my Mandarin is terrible and my Taiwanese is even worse, so it’s kind of a game of telephone. [laughs] But over the course of the shoot, what was really nice is that my Mandarin got a little bit better, so I understood a little bit more of what the actors were saying and communication became a little bit easier.

When that’s the case, I’ve heard other directors say you can focus more on the emotions of a given scene. Did you actually feel that way?

Yeah, because when you watch a total performance and maybe you don’t understand every word, you’re looking at things like facial acting and movement of the eyes and body movements and posture and subtle acting moments that you may miss when you’re fixated on the words. We were incredibly blessed with this cast because everyone came in and hit a home run. If you look at these Taiwanese actors, Hong Chi-Lee and Yo-Hsing Fang and Kuei-Mei Yang, each and every one of them brings something amazing to the part and they were just so on it.

The culture of preparation [in Taiwain] is astounding because I remember in month three or four of the shoot, we were doing a scene and Hong-Chi, who was playing Ping-Jui, messed up a line and he was like, “Ohhh, I’m really sorry.” And I looked at him and said, “I think that’s the first time I heard you mess up a line in three months.” [laughs] I hadn’t even thought about it at that point, but I was like, “Don’t apologize. You haven’t busted a take in months.” So it was really a pleasure and a privilege to work with him.

Was there anything unexpected that happened that made it into the film that you now really like about it?

Some of the choices we made turned out to exceed my expectations with how they added to the film, particularly the visual choice we made to shoot everything in the past in 16mm film, which I talked about with our cinematographer Nigel Bluck beforehand. We wanted to not only make those scenes seem more vibrant and full of energy and colorful, but also to give them a dreamlike quality and make them feel like the films I had seen, some of the greatest films of Asian cinema. All those scenes turned out beautifully and really enhance the transitions between past and present in a way that I think was unexpected for me because watching the 16mm dailies come in, I was like, “This is just beyond what I thought it would be.”

The best compliment I can pay is that it feels like a lost Edward Yang or Hou Hsien-Hsien film. Did you do a deep dive before making this?

100 percent. I watched “Yi Yi,” “Taipei Story,” “City of Sadness” and “A Brighter Summer Day,” and it was really, really eye-opening because I had never seen those movies before. And [the influence] was not even necessarily anything filmmaking-wise or didactically process-wise. It’s just feeling-wise and the way that Yang uses restraint and employs what’s not said to be so powerful. That’s a big influence on this movie, which has a lot of silences in it and characters who are full of humility and don’t express their feelings as readily.

You also have a beautiful score, which you seem to be careful with – what was that like to work on?

Music is really near and dear to my heart. I played instruments growing up, as depicted in the movie a little bit. [laughs] I played some Bach on piano and I picked up guitar and played in a punk rock band, so music is really important to me and we wanted to be restrained with the score and hold it back in some ways until the latter part of the film, so it’s very small and evocative and haunting in the places where it happens, often times when Ping-Jui is having a flashback, and then at the end, it swells to this really grand and warm, fulfilling tone. Michael Brook, our composer, did just such a wonderful job and I actually gave him the note to say, we want the feeling of some of these pieces to be in between, if that makes sense. Not to be incredibly sentimental, but also not melancholy and downbeat. We want to find that bittersweet, emotional, not manipulative feel and I think he really nailed it.

Was there any significance to the pop song that Yuan and Ping-jui danced to?

That was a big one, man. The significance is I was searching for months to find the perfect song and this is while I was writing it. This is how early this was and I knew it was perfect [when I found it], so much so that it’s not on Spotify or Apple music or anything, but it’s on YouTube, so I put the YouTube link into the script so anyone who read the script could put that song on while they read that scene. I wanted to find a song that encapsulated an East meets West feel because Ping-Jui, obviously grew up in an Asian country, but he has dreams of going to America, so that song symbolizes his desire to go to the West and experience it and his love for American pop culture, so it’s a rock band — Yao Su Yong & the Telstars Combo — playing and they have this cool mod guitar sound. It’s very much reminiscent of 1960s rock [like] the Kinks and yet on top of it, you have this female Taiwanese singer singing in Mandarin and it’s just unlike anything I’d ever heard before. People that have seen the film have asked me what that song is and I think people really are latching onto it even now because even with the film not out yet, it’s in the trailer and people have been asking me.

“Tigertail” is now streaming here on Netflix.

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