Novelist Pico Iyer once said, “American dreams are strongest in the hearts of those who have seen America only in their dreams.” This quote embodies the mindset of the main character’s younger self in Alan Yang’s (“Parks And Recreation (TV)”, “Master Of None (TV)”) beautiful feature-film directorial and writing debut.
Set in present day, Pin-Jui, Tzi Ma (“Rush Hour (TV)”, “The Farewell”), is a very quiet man who lives a life of solitude due to the unhappiness that he suppresses. His daughter, Angela, Christine Ko (“Dave (TV)”, “The Great Indoors (TV)”) notices this but is tired of arguing since he is always judging her.
As more interactions between Angela and Pin-Jui occur, we flashback to teenage Pin-Jui, Hong Chi-lee (“Thanatos”, “Drunk”), in Taiwan. We see a completely different person, someone who was fun, lively, and caring.
Teenage Pin-Jui was in love with his childhood crush, Yuan, Yo-Hsing FangYo, and they reconnected after a few years apart when she moved to Huwei. Even though he was afraid that she wouldn’t stay with him due to their social classes, he often described how they would be in America together since his dream was to live in America.
Since he and his mother work together at the factory, he’s always looking after his family. After an accident that causes his mother to miss work, Pin-Jui decides to accept an offer from his boss to marry his boss’s daughter and move to America to make enough money for his mother. In one of the saddest parts of the film, he leaves without saying a word to Yuan but sees her as he’s driving away.
I don’t want to spoil anything from there, but you begin to see how Pin-Jui became who he is now. Yuan made him whole and he knows he made the wrong choice but doesn’t want to express his emotions.
The story itself is loosely based on Yang’s own father and Yang put his heart into crafting this small epic.
Tzi Ma deserves a lot of recognition for this film and last year’s “The Farewell”. He is very underused in most of his films, but this shows he could headline more often instead of being used as a useless character in garbage like Netflix’s “Wu Assassins“. He makes you pay attention to every reaction since we are waiting for him to either suppress or explode with emotion.
As younger Pin-Jui, Chi-Lee embraces the opposite of Ma’s representation. Chi-Lee shines bright every time he’s onscreen. He makes you root for Pin-Jui even though we know the outcome. I read online that someone called him the ‘Taiwan James Dean’ and they couldn’t be more right. I hope he gets more attention as the years go on.
The only flaw of the film was that it does slow down a bit at times. I thought this occurred mostly with Angela’s scenes as I didn’t really care for the character as much as I cared for Pin-Jui. This is nothing against Ko’s performance, who I thought was solid, I just thin it had to do with the flow of her story.
The highlight of the film is when Pin-Jui finds Yuan on Facebook and they reconnect after so many years. We get to see him smile for the first time since he was a teenager and it made me so happy. It makes you imagine what life would have been like if he stayed.
We all must make difficult decisions in life and Pin-Jui had to choose his dream or his reality. I wouldn’t know what to choose if I was him, and that’s what makes this film so challenging and rewarding.
I can sit here and say that I can relate to Pin-Jui, but I have no idea. I grew up with a chance to achieve what I wanted to, and he didn’t because where and when he was born. Everyone deserves to be happy, but it is a lot easier for those who have than those that don’t. I think a lot of people forget that lesson.
I hope to see more of Yang’s stories as “Tigertail” blossoms on Netflix. He has a knack for telling personal stories like he did with ‘Masters of None,’ and I think he has a lot more to tell when he is gets the chance.