Tigertail is a forthright character study about a man whose defining quality is his stubborn, stone-faced reticence. As one might expect, this is a bit of a dilemma for writer-director Alan Yang, here helming his first feature. To the extent that the film works at all, it is due in no small part to the countenance of Tzi Ma, who plays the older version of protagonist Pin-Jui, a first-generation Taiwanese-American with a healthy share of regrets about the twists and turns his life has taken. Ma – a prolific actor best known for his supporting roles in films like the Rush Hour (1998-2000) series and Arrival (2016) – has a wonderfully craggy face that conveys a certain hard-bitten severity. Here, however, Ma is permitted to showcase a more delicate side, much as he did in The Farewell (2019). Pin-Jui is not his usual type: He’s a puffy, divorced older dad in a polo shirt and khakis, a man who exudes fatigue and sad-sack misery – and most certainly does not want to talk about it.

Ma is capable of a fine-grained expressiveness that proves vital in this film, given that much of his screen time involves blankly stonewalling Pin-Jui’s estranged adult daughter, Angela (Christine Ko), or simply sitting and thinking as memories of his character’s younger days surface and briefly overtake the story. Yang purportedly based Tigertail partly on his own father’s experiences as a Taiwanese immigrant to the U.S. – in interviews, the director has called his film a dream of a dream of the past – and it certainly has the unmistakable whiff of an intensely personal work. However, it’s also a story about the shared experiences that exasperate many Asian-American children of immigrant parents: the workaholism, the withholding, the perfectionism, and, above all, the almost pathological reserve. Pin-Jui embodies this trope of the strict, emotionally distant Asian-American father. Just in case viewers might miss the point, Yang includes a flashback where Pin-Jui harshly reproaches a preteen Angela for crying over a mistake she makes during a piano recital. It’s to Ma’s credit, then, that Pin-Jui also feels like a character, one who has a discernible continuity with the young, once-carefree man who is played in flashbacks by Hong-Chi Lee.

The present-day, late-middle-age version of Pin-Jui initially comes off as a cold and callous figure, and Yang’s screenplay isn’t especially concerned with dispelling that impression. (If anything, Pin-Jui’s self-centered, hardhearted behavior becomes more apparent and disgraceful as the film rolls on.) Instead, Tigertail occupies itself with explaining (though not excusing) how a fresh-faced kid who used to dance to Taiwanese pop with pretty girls could become a sour, dreary shell of a man who lives alone and has a fraught, distant relationship with his children. The film’s structure reflects this close bond between history and character. In the present day, Pin-Jui has recently returned to the U.S. from his mother’s funeral in Taiwan, an event that naturally prompts him to reflect on the past. In between scenes of him puttering around his gloomy little condo and behaving like an aloof asshole toward his fed-up daughter, the film flashes back to tell the roughly chronological story of Pin-Jui’s childhood and young adulthood in Taiwan, and eventually his early years in the United States.

As a child, Pin-Jui is raised by his maternal grandmother in the farmlands of central Taiwan, where – when not busy hiding from Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist foot soldiers – he befriends a girl his age named Yuan. Years later, he rejoins his mother in the city, where they both work long, grueling hours at a grimy factory for little pay. Pin-Jui also reunites with Yuan, and the two enjoy a sultry, whirlwind romance that is haunted by his lack of prospects and the class lines that divide the couple. He dreams of moving to America and finding a good job, so that his mother can retire and lead the life of comfort she’s long been denied. That goal seems far out of reach without a hefty nest egg to fund their move. As it happens, the factory’s owner offers Pin-Jui a Faustian bargain when he learns of the young man’s ambitions: woo and marry his daughter Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) and the dowry will cover the couple’s relocation to the U.S. Pin-Jui’s reluctant decision to consent to this proposal – to wed a meek, boring woman he barely knows and with whom he has nothing in common – is one that reverberates through the rest of his life, not to mention that of Zhenzhen and the two children they eventually raise together.

Yang, who co-created and co-writes Netflix’s Master of None (2015-17) with Aziz Ansari, previously tackled the subject of immigrant parents’ often-invisible tribulations in that series’ Emmy-winning episode “Parents.” Tigertail has little of that episode’s sweet humor and open-armed warmth, however. Indeed, Yang’s feature often resembles an anguished, semi-ironic tragedy, a story about a man who makes a series of entirely understandable decisions that look increasingly ill advised with the passage of time. The fact that Pin-Jui’s choices are often made for all the “right” reasons only adds a bitter aftertaste to the consequences that unfold over the ensuing decades. Most conspicuously for Pin-Jui, the “what-ifs'' that hover around his abruptly abandoned romance with Yuan contribute to a festering resentment, which manifests as a glowering displeasure about every less-than-perfect aspect of his life in America. However, it is also observable in the petulant self-absorption that quickly overwhelms his early attentiveness toward his new wife.

Although Pin-Jui is plainly at the center of the film, Yang’s screenplay makes a point of emphasizing Zhenzhen’s profound isolation and loneliness in the couple’s first crummy NYC apartment. Pin-Jui works long hours at a local convenience store to make ends meet, and Zhenzhen spends most of her time alone. She finds herself washing clothes at the corner Laundromat more often than is needed, just to get a glimpse of other people. When she eventually bumps into an older Taiwanese housewife (Kuei-Mei Yang) and starts to spend all her time with this newfound friend, the viewer is invited to empathize with her need for human connection. Yet one also feels Pin-Jui’s annoyance over his wife’s growing neglect of the housework, leaving him to come home after an exhausting double-shift to a dirty, messy apartment and empty fridge. This generous quality to the film’s storytelling is one of its key strengths: Yang never lets Pin-Jui off the hook for his aggrieved, domineering behavior, but it’s also willing to acknowledge that sometimes situations are just shitty, even when everyone is trying their best within the constraints permitted by their class, culture, and upbringing.

The similarities between Pin-Jui and daughter Angela, who is likewise a hard-headed workaholic with relationship problems, end up being a focal point of Tigertail, and their eventual reconciliation emerges as the film’s natural endpoint. Yang isn’t keen to simply repeat the sweet message at the heart of “Parents,” which foregrounded the great hardships that parents often willingly endure to give their children more prosperous and comfortable lives. Tigertail is a spikier, more ambiguous story of generational division and pathology, a plaintive wail from an exasperated child to a taciturn parent: “Why are you like this? Why am I like this?” Not every aspect of the film is attuned to this purpose, and Yang sometimes expends too much effort on colorful little cul-de-sacs that have no substantive relationship to the story. (Pin-Jui’s childhood penchant for an overactive, almost hallucinatory imagination comes to mind as an element with a decidedly underwhelming payoff.)

However, Tigertail’s principal flaw isn’t a shaggy screenplay but the film’s general flat-footed simplicity, which is perhaps not entirely unexpected for a direct-to-streaming release by a first-time feature filmmaker. The present-day footage has the cheap slickness of a Hallmark Channel Original, and although cinematographer Nigel Bluck gives the 1970s scenes some style with the grainy, saturated look of a NYC-set New Hollywood feature, this choice just makes the rest of the film look chintzy in comparison. The excessively maudlin score, meanwhile, has the telltale canned qualities of an off-the-rack composition. (No composer is credited, only music supervisor Zach Cowie.) Tzi Ma and Hong-Chi Lee are the only performers who make a consistently strong impression – although Fiona Fu as the older Zhenzhen gets a barn-burner scene in which more than two decades’ worth of pent-up contempt comes spilling out in one hissing monologue. Yang’s writing and direction are capable enough overall, but he too often favors simple-minded symbolism and clunky, say-what-you’re-thinking dialogue. It’s in the silent moments that Yang’s facility for his story’s emotional density shines, when his characters are simply allowed to sit quietly – whether over spicy beef noodles, a greasy hamburger, or a steaming cup of tea – and steep in everything that has gone unsaid.

Rating: C+

Tigertail is now available to stream from Netflix.