Alan Yang is About to Get Serious with ‘Tigertail’

Alan Yang is a funny guy. 

He has written and directed some of the funniest episodes for hit comedy series like Parks and Recreation and The Good Place. He also co-created the award-winning comedy, Master of None, winning both a Peabody and Emmy for his work on the acclaimed series. 

Now, Yang is about to release his first feature film this week on Netflix, and it’s not what you’d expect. After working in comedy for several years, Yang wanted to write about something personal. Inspired by a trip he took to Taiwan with his father four years ago, Yang really got to know his father and the life he lived in Taiwan — his hopes, dreams, failures, ambitions, and regrets. Tigertail, a multigenerational drama surrounding a Taiwanese American immigrant story, was the end result. 

Loosely based on his father’s immigration, Tigertail tells the story of Pin-Jui, played by Tzi Ma in the present and Hong-Chi Lee in the past, a Taiwanese factory worker who leaves behind his family and the woman he loves to seek better opportunities in America. But after years of monotonous work and a loveless marriage, Pin-Jui is left a broken man filled with regret and emptiness. By connecting with his daughter (Christine Ko), he may finally be able to move on from his past.

During the quarantine, Yang was able to chat with The Nerds of Color from the comfort of his home in Los Angeles about the film, his connection to his roots and the Asian American community, and how he’s surviving quarantine. 

The movie was inspired by your father’s story of his life in Taiwan and coming to America. How close was this story to his story or did you mix different stories to this?

It’s very loosely inspired. It’s not a one-to-one with his life. I think that would be a strange thing to do but I hope to capture some emotional truth to the story and the relationships with people in his life and the sacrifices he made coming to this country and all the obstacles he overcame. There’s elements of truth in it but it’s not exactly him. 

Your other main character is his daughter and the struggles she went through to parallel her father’s life. Why did you choose to have a daughter instead of your own story as the only son?

I just thought it was more interesting. That was a little bit inspired by reality as well. Their relationship was more complicated than mine. I also like the element that in some ways the stories are about the four most important women in his life — his mother, the woman he loved, the woman he married, and then his daughter. I thought there was something beautiful about the symmetry in that. 

I wanted to know about his son. The movie talked about the son being a successful musician. Was that reflected to you as a successful writer/director in entertainment? 

Yeah, I think there is an element between Angela and Pin-jui that is important to the movie. I think there is a specific element that is portrayed in the past where she’s at the piano recital and she messes up. It’s just some tension between them and I like the idea that he’s favored the other kid and their relationship has never been that good, but ultimately, this is a spoiler, [spoiler alert] in some ways his relationship with her becomes his redemption and becomes the only person he could share his past with. 

I love the movie’s past sequences because of the grainy view and historical timely feel to it like old Taiwanese/Chinese/HK-style of films. What inspired this kind of film style?

For sure, we talked about it before we shot the movie. I spoke to Nigel Block, my cinematographer, about it. We talked about how we wanted to make the audience feel in those flashback sequences and how we wanted to portray them as vivid and passionate and full of life. They’re also a memory of the past so he remembers those periods of his life. So, we shot them on 16 mm film. The movie is a mixture of sequences shot on film and sequences shot on digital. A mixture of both. The film gives you that beautiful grain, but it also gives you the saturation of color. It really makes those scenes really vibrant and alive. There were so many films that were inspirations for this movie. There were gang movies and Hou Hsiao-hsien movies and, of course, Wong Kar-Wai. So, yeah, there were definitely a lot of Asian movies that served as inspiration. 

There were many messages I got from the film — moving on from the past, regret, etc, but I’d like to hear from you what the ultimate message was.

I hate giving just a message of what the film is about and telling people what to think. I think there were many themes and they include just a feeling of honesty, connection, and vulnerability. The idea that it’s never too late to connect to the people that you love and it’s never too late to tell you care about how you feel. I think that’s one of them for sure. 

Music plays a part in this movie. Why were these choices made? Otis Redding. Yao Su Yong & The Telstars Combo.

The music was a huge part of the movie. The Yao Su Yong track was one that I found very early on and it was very instrumental in the creation of the characters and just that feeling of that time period. I was looking for a piece that combined east and west and represented where Ping-Jui is from, but also where he wanted to go. It’s a song that is a rock music song with guitars and bass, with jangly mod guitars, but at the same time, a female vocalist singing in Mandarin over it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard and it felt perfect because it was so upbeat and energetic and lively and featured this mixture of east and west. So, I loved it so much. It’s not on Spotify or Apple Music. It’s only on YouTube, so I immediately bought the record on eBay and found out who the publishers were. I put a link to it in the script, so people who read the script could listen to the song as they read about the scene. Yeah, that was really important. The Otis Redding song was very specific. I think, idiosyncratic. That is one that my dad used to sing. 

Can you tell me where the film was shot? Were they all from your father’s childhood?

It’s really beautiful. In addition to it being a love letter to my parents, it’s also a love letter to Taiwan in general. It’s a beautiful place. I think it’s a little bit of a hidden gem. Not a lot of people know about it or visit there. It was all around. We shot some in Taipei. We shot some in my dad’s hometown. The rice fields were near there as well. It was a lot of just cold scouting and me looking through photos and us taking the van down and looking at it. So, we scouted all over. Those rice fields were the result of scouting many many different places, including tea fields and places in the mountain, including so many different locations. I think there is even a shot in there, at one point, they run past a water buffalo and that was actually separated from the original rice fields. It was in a different part of the country, but we love that location so much that we stole a shot there as well. That was actually close to where we shot the river scenes. It was kind of a showcase of Taiwan as well. 

I’m curious about Pin-Jui trying to reconnect to his past. Was this a way for him to find some closure?

A part of me was like there is a classic way about thinking about movies. In general, your main character wants something throughout the movie. In this case, in general, the thing that they want in the beginning of the movie is generally not in most good movies, what the real solution to their problem is. In this case, I think in this point of the movie, he wants to return to the past. He wants to connect again. He wants to reclaim that version of himself. He gets what he thinks he wants which is a reconnection with Yuan, but what’s real is that’s not what he needs. What he needs is a change inside of himself. So, he only gets that with his relationship with his daughter. It’s a way of showing that part of his life is not reachable again, but what he can do is open up and be honest about how he feels.  

I really enjoyed watching the mother’s point of view regarding her time from Taiwan to America and the loneliness that many mothers feel when their husbands have to work, like my own mother. Was this a reflection of your mother’s story too?

I loved Zhenzhen’s section in the movie. I think it’s a little bit of a surprise for people because you’ve been following this one character pretty closely and Zhenzhen seems like an obstacle and not a character in her own right. Then, we started expanding her point of view and her struggle. I love that she finds happiness in the end. That’s one thing that is rooted in reality, my parents did get divorced. My mom was lucky enough to write her own second act of her life. She became a teacher and remarried. She’s happier than I’ve ever seen her before. So, I’m really glad for her. 

Many Asian Americans can relate to losing a bit of their parents’ identity when they come to America and become more assimilated to the American way of life. What do you hope many Asians, not even Asians, but immigrant families, will take from your film?

It would be cool if they called their parents afterwards. Maybe learn a little but more about them and remember that they are human beings with these incredibly rich lives and they were young once. They probably had the same thoughts and wants and desires that you had. They are whole people. For someone like me, who didn’t really know anything about his heritage at all, maybe start looking into that yourself. I think that would be one thing for sure. 

I know you’ve stated many times that you never felt a connection with your Asian side in the past before and it was partly because you didn’t grow up around many Asians and your parents never shared stories of their life in Taiwan. Did you have time to reflect on your background during the process of this film and felt a connection with your Taiwanese background?

I think absolutely. One of the reasons is I was at a zero before, it has to be better now. I’m still just scratching the surface. I’m learning a tiny bit of Mandarin. I’m speaking to my parents a little bit more. It’s all part of the process. Going to ‘never going back to Taiwan’ to ‘going back five or six times in the last couple of years,’ I think it’s an improvement. 

Do you feel a close connection with the Asian American community?

Yeah, for sure. It was all very natural and organic. I feel like the timing of all of this is really special because when I was writing this movie, there was no Crazy Rich Asians and no The Farewell. There were no any of these movies. I feel really lucky that those movies have paved the way. Parasite won a million Oscars and it’s subtitled and this movie is subtitled too. Maybe people are overcoming their aversion to having to read when they watch a movie.  

The character of Brian in Netflix’s Master of None was loosely based on you as well as the character’s father, which is completely different from the father shown in this movie. I just need an explanation of the father characters.

I think my dad contains multitudes. I think he’s a very multi-dimensional guy as we all do. This movie really shows what a rich life he lived and how many things he’s experienced in his life. I think we get a little bit more time to explore in a feature length film. 

Do you have any plans for future Asian American stories or personal ones like this?

Absolutely. I’ll definitely make more movies down the road. It’s definitely in the plans. I think television and movies both. There are a couple of things I’m not allowed to tell anybody about. Yeah, I’m working on things.

Do you have any creative advice that could be used during this quarantine?

It might help that you have a little bit more time potentially. It may be hard to be inspired, but maybe try to stay sane. Number one, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to write a great screenplay in one day. All of it is day by day, minute by minute process. Yeah, set aside some time every day and if you could just commit to that and have a little bit of discipline, you’ll be happy with the results. It’s hard to even do it every day. Any writer who is doing that and is committed to that and is disciplined enough to do that, I think you’re well enough on your way.

What do you do to keep sane during this quarantine?

I am fortunate enough to be working on some stuff with other people, so I try to schedule calls with them. Calls help keep you accountable. You’re keeping up and you’re trying to collaborate and pitch in. So that’s really helpful, so you’re not so alone. Take a walk. Go for a run. Stay away from other people. Breathe some fresh air once in awhile. 

Tigertail is available to stream now on Netflix.

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