A young boy stands in a field with his head bowed, tears ready to fall as his grandmother scolds him for missing his parents.
“Crying never solves anything,” the grandmother says sternly in Taiwanese. “Be strong. Never let anyone see you cry.”
Those words are echoed throughout “Tigertail,” a love story told across multiple decades and countries ― from 1950s Taiwan to present-day New York ― that is written and directed by “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang. The film follows Pin-Jui (portrayed by Hong-Chi Lee, when the character is young, and Tzi Ma) a poor factory worker who dreams of a better life for himself and his mother. He believes that life can be achieved by going to America to pursue opportunities out of reach for him in Taiwan. But that decision comes with a sacrifice: leaving the woman he loves behind.
In a phone interview with HuffPost, Yang said he wanted to show the complexity of family relationships and what happens when you add layers of love, loss and immigration to the story. This film is especially personal for Yang, 36, who was inspired by his own family’s stories — particularly the stories that hadn’t been easily passed down between generations. And it is his latest attempt to push forward conversations about Asian representation in Hollywood.
“The world could use something emotional, but not in a frenetic, incredibly disturbing way,” Yang said. “I think the movie is quiet but passionate, and makes you want to call your parents. It makes you want to reach out and tell the people you care about that you care about them.”
And humanity really needs that kind of storytelling now, he said. On top of the coronavirus crisis, concerns have escalated about growing anti-Asian sentiments because of China being blamed for the pandemic. Ma, one of the stars of “Tigertail,” recently shared a story of being verbally assaulted by a stranger in a Whole Foods parking lot. He added that his friends who are Asian have expressed fear about such incidents.
“You feel like you live in a world that is making progress every day, and that’s how I felt growing up in America [in the 1980s],” Yang said. “[Racism] is always bubbling underneath the surface, and we always have to be vigilant and we always have to be taking active strides to educate people and make sure that they understand the truth of what’s going on.”
In “Tigertail,” the present-day timeline finds an older Pin-Jui struggling to empathize with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko), who spent her life feeling as if she couldn’t talk to her father.
“I think sometimes it takes you maturing and aging and becoming an adult yourself to start appreciating everything that your parents have done for you and how incredible their lives are,” Yang said. “Think about your parents. You know them as well you know them: as your parents. It sounds insane, but you don’t necessarily think of them as human beings. They’re flawed and they’re passionate and they have regrets. And they’ve had lots of love. They’ve had all of these multitudes contained inside their lives.”
Although “Tigertail” isn’t a direct biography of his family’s story, Yang said writing the film helped him get to know his parents and his own heritage better. His father is even in the film as the voice of an “omniscient narrator” heard briefly throughout the film.
“I wanted this sort of haunting, almost detached, narrator … and I had the idea to let my dad try to do it because I knew he had the right kind of voice,” Yang said. He added that the way his father read the lines, with “emotion conveyed through a lack of emotion,” brought to life those themes of loss and reconnecting with the past seen throughout “Tigertail.”
The film also connected Yang with Taiwan, his parents’ home country which he hadn’t visited since he was 7 years old. While shooting in Taiwan, Yang used the actual sugar factory where his father worked when he was younger for the film’s factory scenes.
While Yang’s personal life crosses into “Tigertail” in those small ways, he said that’s only one facet of the film and other work he’s produced. He often finds inspiration in current events, as well. His 2020 Apple TV+ series “Little America” provides vignettes of the lives of immigrants in America, and “Master of None” tackled topics such as diversity and representation in Hollywood — a subject Yang is passionate about.
When he began writing “Tigertail” four years ago, he said no clear example existed of what a Hollywood film with an all-Asian or Asian American cast looked like.
“It had been 25 years since ‘The Joy Luck Club’ and it was before ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and before ‘The Farewell,’” Yang said. “It was before even an Asian movie like ‘Parasite’ won all the Oscars. The idea of an entirely Asian and Asian American cast seemed like lunacy.”
But since Yang started on “Tigertail, the conversation about diversity and representation ― both in front of and behind the scenes ― became more and more visible, underscored by such major studio projects as “Crazy Rich Asians.” Yang was part of that movement, too, with his Netflix series “Master of None,” which he co-created with comedian Aziz Ansari and which received an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2016.
Still, Yang said, it’s not enough.
“We’re talking about three or four movies, and if you look at the history of American cinema, that’s tens of thousands of movies,” he said. “We have a lot of ground to make up and the next step for me is a range of roles and a range of Asian American lead characters that we haven’t seen before. You know, we haven’t seen an Asian American Indiana Jones, we haven’t seen an Asian American Furiosa, we haven’t seen an Asian American Ron Burgundy. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re going to get there and I can’t wait.”
So can fans expect “Asian American Ron Burgundy” to pop up in one of Yang’s future projects?
“Maybe not that specific,” he laughed. “But there are definitely going to be plenty of Asian American people in projects I work on going forward, trust me!”
“Tigertail” streams on Netflix on April 10.