ko’s review published on Letterboxd:
TIGERTAIL is, in a single word, dilettantish. Few films wear their influences so unabashedly. Not a scene goes by without some hint of Wong Kar-wai or the Taiwanese New Wave. But TIGERTAIL never approximates even the contours of these influences, let alone emerge from their shadow.
Start with the dialogue. Any native speaker can tell the Mandarin is stiff and stilted. It is immediately apparent that the film's poseur-auteur Alan Yang doesn't know a lick of Chinese. If your entire screenplay requires the rewriting of a translator, you should rethink the project.
Yang's language deficiency also explains how actors with disparate language competencies end up playing the same character. We would crucify the white director who thought Lee Hong-chi and Tzi Ma could play the same person. Yang does not get a pass just because he has the right skin color.
But it's not just a problem of language. To the extent that East Asian cinema can be generalized, its best quality is humanism. But this screenplay is built almost as an antithesis, with soulless scientific logic. Mom gets into accident? Protagonist leaves for America. Wife divorces him? He searches for ex-lover. Ex-lover meets him? He has a tell-all talk with his daughter.
The result is a deterministic narrative. Each scene seems to exist only to justify the next, as opposed to revealing some color and depth about the characters. Each ancillary character seems to exist only to motivate the protagonist's actions, as opposed to being full-blooded animals with their own moral universes. It all unfolds with the drama of a chemistry textbook.
We've seen this kind of vacuous characterization and simplistic plot work elsewhere. Usually gorgeous photography saves the day. That does not happen here. I can think of no better example than the dance scene that introduces us to the young lovers. We're supposed to be entranced by the gyrations of these sweet young things. But it's lit and framed so poorly that you often can't see the shapes move.
I don't think there's only one good way to do dance scenes. But if you watch Wong Kar-wai's DAYS OF BEING WILD, HAPPY TOGETHER or CHUNGKING EXPRESS -- or even Tarantino's PULP FICTION -- you'll see that dance scenes are often lit brightly, even harshly. The theory isn't complex: When the focus is on movement, you want to be able to see that movement.
In other moments of showiness, the photography preoccupies itself with the lush greens of grass panoramas and the searing reds of neon lights. But these happen so rarely that they merely serve to stick out as unexplained inconsistencies in a film mostly shot in a functional, unremarkable style.
Then there is the acting. It really is some of the most unconvincing stuff I've seen in recent years. I've never regarded Tzi Ma as a particularly good actor. It's a testament to Hollywood's lack of casting imagination that he seems to be omnipresent in our cultural moment. Yet he manages to pull off in THE FAREWELL an accomplished supporting performance. Here he is awful, evincing none of the nuance that the role demands. Everyone else is merely mediocre.
Finally, the music. This is such an over-orchestrated film. Weepy strings to tell you it's a sad scene. It'd be less bad if it wasn't the same weepy strings every time.
That this mess is still getting plaudits from critics, I think, is white guilt in action. All three East Asian critics on RT have enough sense to pan this film.
But snide observations aside, TIGERTAIL is filling a unique gap in the white liberal fantasy of America. Its meaningless name is Asian (Tiger!) without being too Asian (just imagine if this was named "Huwei," the Mandarin transliteration). Problems with accents and writing are not noticeable when you're relying on the subtitles. The story is about immigrants in an era of, you know, Trump and Asians and immigrants. Finish that off with a gratifying meta-narrative about the star, Tzi Ma, being Hollywood's underappreciated Asian conscript and the director. Alan Yang, being the non-pervert co-creator of the critics' favorite Asian-American TV show.
TIGERTAIL has served up a moment for self-congratulations. Are you really gonna be the white person to dunk on that?