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Alan Yang says directorial debut in Tigertail inspired by his own parents

Alan Yang at the Peabody Awards in 2016. Photo from Peabody Awards by Sarah E. Freeman/Grady College via Flickr Creative Commons

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Contributor

Despite COVID-19, Alan Yang considers himself lucky. Even though the premiere of his first feature length film, Tigertail, had to be cancelled, his film is streaming on Netflix.

After all, he said, “Netflix is a popular service; people are staying at home and they’re watching it.”

Born and raised in Riverside, California, Yang, who has written and produced for Parks and Recreation (2009-2015), The Good Place (2016) and Master of None (2015-2017), previously wrote the 2014 teen sex comedy, Date and Switch, for which he was also an executive producer. For Tigertail, he is writer, director and producer.

Yang says, the movie “is loosely inspired by my father.” He’d been working on the script since about 2015, talking with his father, his mother and his sister. “A lot of it is imagination and fictionalized,” but he wanted to write about “stuff that I connect to most, something with personal resonance” while still feeling that a straight biopic would not have been as interesting an endeavor.

The film begins with a young boy, Pin-Jui,  being cared for by his maternal grandmother. His father has died and his mother has sent him into the country where he’s surrounded by rice fields. He doesn’t have legal right to be there and when the authorities come by, he must hide. He does find a friend, a girl his age, Yuan Lee, from a wealthy family. When his mother retrieves him, Pin-Jui (Hong Chi-Lee) grows up to a dreary existence of a deadens job in the same factory where his mother works. He again meets Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fang), but pragmatically, he knows he’ll never be able to marry her. Instead, he marries a shy young girl, Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li), whose father mysteriously pays for Pin-Jui to marry Zhenzhen and immigrate to the United States. In the US, Pin-jui becomes Grover and he works as a clerk in a store, but finds he shares few interests with his wife. They have two kids, grow apart and when the nest is empty, divorce. As an old man, Grover (Tzi Ma) reflects upon his life and mainly his relationship with his troubled, workaholic daughter, Angela (Christine Ko).

Meticulously shot in New York and Taiwan, the film is contemplative and doesn’t provide a happily-ever-after tidy ending.

As the older and world-weary Grover, Tzi Ma brings gravity and a somber sense of disappointment. In a separate interview Ma mentioned that it was Yang’s Emmy acceptance speech that made him eager to work with Yang.

Four years ago, when Yang and Aziz Ansari received a shared Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series (Master of None), Yang told the audience, “There’s 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong. So we got a long way to go, but I know we can get there. I believe in us. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work. Asians parents out there, if you could just do me a favor and just a couple of you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we would be all good.”

Tigertail is Yang following his own advice, telling a tale that starts in Taiwan, using Taiwanese, Mandarin and English. Although Yang is far from fluent in either Mandarin or Taiwanese, he wrote in English and had parts of the script translated. Having help from a few friends is one thing, but sometimes it can get out of hand. He recalled that while filming in Taiwan, the interpreter got a little too helpful, attempting to do a little directing himself.

Keeping control of your interpreter can be touchy, but so can deciding what stays in because “a movie generally tells you what it wants to be.” As he was in post-production, Yang found that the heart of the film, didn’t need John Cho. “I’m disappointed for John because he did such great work,” but Cho was “incredibly supportive.” Yang says that not only has Cho seen the film, but so has his mother and sister. Luckily all three have loved it. At the time of the interview, his father, who currently lives in Pasadena and narrates the beginning and ending, hadn’t seen the film.

Any celebration had to be low key. Yang said he is fortunate because while he can’t shoot, “we can write, we can go over outlines and we can call press.”  Of course, he’s heard about Tzi Ma’s unfortunate experience in Pasadena with coronavirus racism. “It feels strange to read about all these incidents; It’s really disappointing.”  So far, Yang’s escaped any anti-Asian incidents and his heart goes out to “people who have been economically affected.”

Tigertail is currently streaming on Netflix.

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