By Grace Loh Prasad
Almost a month after the Bay Area began to shelter in place, the film Tigertail by Taiwanese American director Alan Yang premiered on Netflix. It’s a fictionalized homage to Yang’s father, a Taiwanese immigrant who left a factory job in central Taiwan to immigrate to New York with his young bride. Under different circumstances I would have loved to talk about the film over a meal with friends, but that wasn’t possible.
Fortunately, my friend Grace Hwang Lynch invited me to a watch party for Tigertail. What sealed the deal for me was the chance to discuss the film with a group of likeminded watchers, all Taiwanese American women in creative professions. This separate-yet-communal experience was part of the new normal of socializing via Zoom, now a regular feature of our lives during the pandemic.
I joined the Zoom a few minutes late after running to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of wine. We introduced ourselves first, then immediately shared our reactions to the film. The first thing we talked about was the role of language – how the characters switch between Taiwanese and Mandarin in Taiwan, and between Mandarin and English in the US. While some noticed inconsistencies in the main character as he aged (played by three different actors), we agreed that the fluid shifting between languages was something we all experienced firsthand in some way. In general, Taiwanese is more prevalent among older generations and those who live outside of the big cities. Our parents’ generation was constantly code switching – speaking Taiwanese at home but Mandarin in public, which was mandated by the ROC government.
I told the group that I got emotional hearing the dialogue between the main character Pin-Jui and his mother and grandmother in the early scenes of the film. It’s because I almost never hear Taiwanese spoken in the States – I don’t have any close family here. Hearing it in a film transports me like nothing else – it’s like time traveling back into my subconscious. I wrote about this feeling years ago in an essay called “Projections”, about my habit of installing myself at the Kabuki Theater every spring for the annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (known today as CAAMFest).
I’ve lost count of how many films I’ve seen at CAAMFest over the past 20 years, ranging from mainstream successes (Bend It Like Beckham, Better Luck Tomorrow) to serious dramas (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Water) to animated features (Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming). I’ve seen documentaries about Korean and Vietnamese adoptees, Hawaiian muralists, and alumni of Taiwan’s infamous Love Boat. It’s been quite an education.
The year I wrote “Projections”, several of the films were from Taiwan–including a revival of the Hou Hsiao-hsien classic A City of Sadness, which depicts the chaos of the 2-28 Massacre in February 1947. This was a pivotal moment in Taiwan’s history and one that illustrates the historic tensions between benshengren (Taiwanese who’d been there for generations) and waishengren (mainlanders who arrived after 1945, and their descendants). In the film, language serves as a litmus test to show which side you’re on. The massacre also marked the beginning of the White Terror, a period of martial law (hinted at in Tigertail) that lasted almost 40 years and is the source of much intergenerational pain and silence.
Our discussion group also spoke about the gorgeous cinematography in Tigertail, in particular the sumptuous colors in the 1960s Taiwan scenes that evoked Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, and the familiar but effective three-act structure of many immigrant narratives (origin country to America to next generation) and the recurrent themes of bridging cultures and generations. Another topic was the unique difficulty of Taiwanese American storytelling: silence and stoicism is a language we all understand, but it often fails to translate for a broader mainstream audience and comes across as insufficient character development.
Tigertail has some fine performances, moments of exquisite beauty, a terrific soundtrack and a surprise cameo near the end that brought me joy. Although the historical and cultural nuances are specific to Taiwan, the themes of parental sacrifice and reckoning with one’s identity are universal.
I was called away to dinner and reluctantly waved goodbye to our Tigertail discussion group. Once we overcame the initial awkwardness of doing happy hour via laptop, the conversation flowed as if we had all known each other for years, and we made promises to do it again. Only afterwards did it occur to me that a wish I’d had when I wrote “Projections” – that I would eventually find more Taiwanese American friends who enjoyed the film festival and were invested in APIA and diasporic storytelling – had unexpectedly come true. Although we were in our separate homes trying to stay safe during the pandemic, for a few hours I felt the warmth and solidarity of the Taiwanese American community.