Alan Yang and Tzi Ma on Tigertail and Telling Family Stories

Tigertail Tzi Ma Christine Ko
Young Ping-Jui runs through rice fields in Tigertail, Image Credit: Netflix

In 2016, Alan Yang stood onstage next to Aziz Ansari at the Emmys and gave a rousing speech while accepting an award for comedy writing for their hit Netflix show Master of None. In his speech, Yang called for Asian American not to be placated with a handful of films, and encouraged parents to give their kids cameras instead of violins. Fast forward to 2020, and Yang’s first feature film, Tigertail, will premiere on Netflix, Friday, April 10.

The film—written, produced, and directed by Yang—portrays a fictional narrative, loosely based on his father’s life. The movie opens in the 1950s: Pin-Jui is a young boy, raised by his grandmother near the rice paddies of rural Taiwan. As a young man, Pin-Jui ends up working in a dreary sugar factory and spending his evenings romancing a beautiful young woman from town, while dreaming of about the United States. When the opportunity to move to New York arises, Pin-Jui finds that his American dream is bittersweet.

The early scenes of Tigertail show a glimpse of Taiwan largely unfamiliar to American audiences: the sound of the Taiwanese language and hints of the martial law that ruled the island for 40 years.

“We wanted to sort of highlight the generational divide. The real story with my dad is Taiwanese was his first language. He grew up in a rural part of the country,” explained Yang, in a phone interview. “And we wanted to show in the scenes with him and his mom when he’s a little bit older, that he’s kind of transitioned over to Mandarin. And his mom still replies in Taiwanese, which is an interesting mirror to my own life. I was born here, and I will speak in English and my parents will reply in Mandarin.”

Some of the scenes are filmed the same factory where Yang’s father and grandmother worked forty or fifty years ago. The script was born from a trip  Yang took to Taiwan with his father four years ago. He worked on it in his free time, while also writing for Master of None and Forever, which he worked on with Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, and producing the Apple TV series Little America that tells the story of immigrant families. In fact, he kept the script (which he called “Family Movie”) a secret from his father. When Yang was working in New York, he asked his father to unlock his home in Los Angeles so exterminators could do work. The older Yang stumbled upon the script on the coffee table and read it.

“I still remember where I was when I read that email, because he also went on to say that he loved it. He was so honored and proud of me,” says Yang. “I’ll never forget getting that message from him.”

Tigertail Tzi Ma Christine Ko
Tzi Ma and Christine Ko in Tigertail, Image Credit: Netflix

The Mandarin voice over at the beginning of the movie is actually the voice of Yang’s father. In present day scenes, the character Pin-Jui is portrayed by veteran actor and friend of CAAMFest Tzi Ma, who said he was attracted to the script because of Yang’s Emmy speech, which expressed the importance of the film and television as a way to express lesser-known experiences.

“It really is a powerful tool for us to get our message out, to get our statements out, which is how diverse we are,” says Ma. “The experience that we have is enriching, and it’s global and it’s also universal.”

While Tigertail begins streaming at time when people may be sheltered at home apart from their loved ones, Yang hopes it will spark conversations between the generations who don’t understand each other. “Watch with your family separately, but talk to each other afterwards,” he encourages.

Tigertail will be available on Netflix, beginning Friday April 10.



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