Based on Yang’s own family story, the film follows Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma), a Taiwanese man who leaves his girlfriend to immigrate to New York in pursuit of prosperity. The film is told in flashback as Pin-Jui, divorced with two grown children, reflects on his journey. It was supposed to have a simultaneous theatrical release that was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview, Yang talked about his own family’s immigrant experience and releasing a film about it during a time of widespread xenophobia and racism toward Asian-Americans. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
To what extent is this film an autobiographical story?
It’s very personal. It’s inspired by my family and especially my dad’s story. But I left enough room for imagination. There’s a lot in the movie that I made up and filled in the gaps and tried to make it into a compelling and emotional cinematic experience. Not just listing the beats of what happened to my dad — that’s not how you generally make an entertaining movie.
You clearly had to talk to your father about his immigration story to come up with this script. What was that like for you, getting him to open up?
It’s a pretty common experience for Asian parents to be on the quiet side and be reserved and be taciturn. And it’s alluded to in the movie. I think it’s a cultural thing in some ways, as well as a generational thing.
For me, making the movie brought me closer to my parents, quite frankly. We haven’t always had the most open relationship. And I think part of that is because of their upbringing and the way they raised me as well. Asking them questions about the movie was a great way to actually learn more about them.
I ended up taking a trip to Taiwan with my dad. And that was so inspirational and influential in the movie. Very much like Angela, the daughter in the movie, I hadn’t gone back to Taiwan since I was 7. Just the look on his face and seeing how he interacted with people and the way he spoke Taiwanese with cabdrivers — it just really crystallized what the movie could mean in my eyes.
The movie focuses on Pin-Jui’s relationship with Angela. It alludes to a son, who never makes an appearance. Why did you scrub yourself out of the picture?
Well, in some ways, Angela (played by Christine Ko) is a proxy for both me and my sister. There are a couple reasons to make the character a daughter. In some ways the movie is about Pin-Jui and his relationships with the four most important women in his life: his mom, the woman he loved, the woman he married and, finally, his daughter.
I also wanted to lightly allude to the fact that not just in Asian-American families, but in many families, I think the daughter often has a more difficult time. There’s many cases of the son being the golden child and he can do no wrong. So I thought it was a little bit more realistic and a little bit more interesting to have it be a father-daughter relationship.
From “Master of None” to “The Good Place,” your past works have generally been comedies. “Tigertail” isn’t funny. Why take on a serious tone for your directorial debut?
Quite honestly, it was just the story I was most excited about. So I started thinking about this story, these characters. And it became clear pretty early on that this would be a drama, the sort of restrained drama I had seen in Taiwanese films like “Yi Yi” [by Edward Yang] and “A City of Sadness” [from Hou Hsiao-hsien]. That sort of measured drama without melodrama, being able to express a broad range of emotions without resorting to sentimentality. I guess you could see it as a pivot, but it wasn’t a conscious one in my mind.
What were some of your other influences? I saw hints of Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love.”
There was definitely, as I mentioned, an Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien influence. But yes, there’s absolutely a Wong Kar-wai influence in those flashback scenes in Taiwan, right down to the wardrobe.
One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that I tried to take all of these influences and use these techniques that I had seen in these classic Asian films and apply them to an Asian-American story. In a way, it’s using classic techniques to tell a modern story that I hadn’t seen before.
What’s the role of language in the film?
It might be the only movie with Taiwanese, Mandarin and English, all in about equal portions. Language really is sort of built into the theme. The older generations — people my grandma’s age — speak Taiwanese. Generally people my dad’s age speak Mandarin and Taiwanese, and obviously people my age who were born in America speak English.
So we have scenes where the grandma is speaking to the dad in Taiwanese and he’s speaking Mandarin back to her. Oftentimes in my household, my parents would speak to me in Mandarin, and I would speak back to them in English. So that to me is in some ways emblematic of, frankly, our inability to communicate with each other.
I know it’s a very on-the-nose metaphor, but that’s kind of what the movie’s about. There are barriers to our communication, and oftentimes we’re not able to express exactly how we feel. Part of that quite simply is verbal.
These are particularly strange times for Asian-Americans, who have been targets of hate crimes. How do you feel about the timing of your movie release?
It’s a weird and very disappointing time. Maybe I’m incredibly naïve, but I kind of thought in 2020 we were somewhat past overt racism in the streets. It’s obviously still out there.
I can’t say that I have the solution, but I hope that the movie can be some small source of comfort and it can give people 90 minutes of something to watch that they can connect to and be entertained by. I hope the Asian-American community embraces it because it’s very much a love letter, not just to my own family, but to every family that’s gone through this experience.
So it’s certainly a difficult time, but I think in a sadly ironic way, it might be a perfect time for the movie.