Written by Milo Hsieh.
This article was originally published by The News Lens International and can be found here.
Alan Yang’s first feature film, Tigertail, recounts the tale of Pin-jui, a Taiwanese immigrant estranged from his family after arriving in New York.
The Taiwanese backdrop sets the film apart from The Farewell, which also captured attention with its Asian American immigrant narrative. This has heightened expectations among Taiwanese and diaspora audiences for a film that portrays Taiwan not as a generic East Asian country but one with a unique culture and history.
Tigertail makes attempts in this vein, but ultimately fails in its execution. Rather than a review, its linguistic, historical, and political oversights merit a brief essay in themselves.
The elderly Pin-jui uses terms, phrases, and tone changes in ways uncommon to Taiwanese Mandarin speakers. The lack of extraneous endings typical to Taiwanese Mandarin speakers, like -le (了), -ma (嗎), and -oh (喔) stands out. A near complete absence of idiomatic expressions not only makes his lines dry and unremarkable, but also bears the mark of direct translation from English.
Lee Hong-chi, the Taiwanese actor cast as young Pin-jui, is suited for the role. Despite this, the script gives him words that were not used until the 21st century, detracting from film’s late-50s setting. For example, the use of “zheng” (正) by Pin-jui’s friend to describe Yuan’s good look is a term of recent coinage in Taiwan.
A similar disconnect exists between young and old Yuan. The Taiwanese actor Fang Yo-hsing, who plays Yuan in her youth, delivers her lines in a Taiwanese cadence. But Joan Chen, cast as Yuan in her later years, speaks Mandarin with a distinct northern Chinese accent, inconsistent with her character’s youthful portrayal.
The Taiwanese Hokkien dialogue, mostly spoken by Pin-jui’s mother, is colorful and descriptive, but is frequently rendered in English unimaginatively. “Speed up your hands and feet,” “stop snailing,” “we haven’t got any of this American time,” were three Taiwanese sayings that were each simplified down to a forgettable “hurry up” in English.
This inattention to language, more than just giving off an uncanny or inauthentic air, also speaks of a missed chance to address the conflicts characteristic of Taiwan in the 1950s.
At the time, new immigrants who arrived in Taiwan with the Kuomintang, referred to as waishengren (外省人), were at odds — culturally and economically — with the Taiwanese Hokkien and Hakka speaking populations who had inhabited the island prior to Japanese colonization in the 1890s. Waishengren were typically well-off and connected with the political elite, and were naturally seen as outsiders and sometimes as oppressors by the native Taiwanese population.
Taiwanese films often address this theme by showing speakers possessing heavy Chinese accents, representing waishengren, in conflict with those speaking Taiwanese Hokkien or speaking Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent.
The distinct Mainlander accent of young Zhenzhen and her well-off family background both signal a waishengren background. Her arranged marriage with Pin-jui could have served as a metaphor for the political tensions rife at the time, but no reference to this is implied.
Furthermore, Zhenzhen’s waishengren father Old Li, speaks with a noticeable Taiwanese accent, undermining attempts to depict this era with historical nuance.
A Fraught Symbol Made Uncomplicated
The Republic of China flag serves as a visual aid to indicate when a scene is set in Taiwan, in place of more delicate, substantive clues. Though a real-life version of Pin-jui may have a nostalgic connection to the old standard of the ROC, nothing in the film indicates that many Taiwanese reject the ROC flag as a symbol of an oppressive, settler-colonial government.
Even though Tigertail opens with a reference to regime rule, showing Pin-jui running away from KMT soldiers, the film makes no further attempt to explore its meaning or influence on Pin-jui’s worldview. The scene was self-explanatory to Taiwanese viewers, but Tigertail did not add any historical context to comment on the broader influence of dictatorship on Taiwan.
It is peculiar that after being hunted down by KMT soldiers, Pin-jui still keeps the flag in his box of personal items after moving to New York. That he would affirm the flag as a part of his identity despite these events could have been the intro to the complicated relationship many Taiwanese Americans have with the martial law period. But instead, Tigertail reads the flag as an uncomplicated, all-purpose representation of Taiwan.
The deployment of the flag is consistent with the lack of distinction between generic Asian culture, Chinese culture, and Taiwanese culture in the film.
Had Tigertail touched on other symbols that are important to the identity of many Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans, it could have better differentiated itself from other Asian-American films. But instead of taking a position on these delicate issues, it settles on an unsatisfactory position and defers to presenting the flag as a simple representation of Taiwan.
Tigertail is a step forward in terms of bringing Taiwan to the international spotlight and Asian-American actors onto the stage. This, however, does not make up for its linguistic faults and historical superficiality, as the relative scarcity of films like this make faithful accounts even more important.
Milo Hsieh studies international relations at American University. He is a freelance journalist based in Washington D.C.