Alan Yang’s Tigertail begins with a young boy running through the rice fields of occupied Taiwan. He sees a chimerical vision of his parents in the distance — his father, who died when he was an infant, and his mother, who left him with his grandparents to find work — while the voice of his older self (narrated by Yang’s actual father) explains, “Sometimes, I saw things because I wanted to see them.”
This image of young Pin-Jui, as a fanciful boy chasing visions in rice fields, is where Tigertail began for writer-director-producer Yang, too. Very much inspired by his own father’s immigrant story — the name itself is an homage to his Taiwanese village — the Netflix drama is a tale that spans generations: starting with Pin-Jui as a child, then picking back up with him as a passionate young man with dreams of starting anew in the United States, and detailing his life as a Taiwanese immigrant in the Bronx, all while weaving in vignettes of Pin-Jui as an older man in the present (played by Tzi Ma). But Tigertail is more than a story of one man; it’s about a family. Even more broadly, it’s “about how you feel split in between worlds” as an immigrant and as a child of immigrants, Yang tells MTV News.
In this conversation about the film, the Emmy-winning writer talks about bringing the personal story to life, embracing his own identity, and the challenges of filming a movie in three languages (Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English) — two of which he doesn’t speak. Plus, Yang reflects on what he’s learned from his parents and the ways in which he’s just like them.
MTV News: I want to start at the end, actually.
Alan Yang: It’s like Memento, you’re going to start backwards.
MTV News: Exactly. I was so captivated by the ending sequence between Pin-Jui and his daughter Angela (Christine Ko) because I know that it was directly inspired by your own trip to Taiwan with your father. It got me thinking a lot about why now was the right time for you to tell this very personal story?
Yang: I’m glad you responded to the ending because it might be my favorite part of the movie. It’s the part that gets me the most every time I watch it. That’s probably because it was inspired by something that happened to me. As far as why now, I think I was just ready. For me, whatever I choose to work on is essentially a very instinctive decision. It’s just: When I wake up in the morning, what am I thinking about? When I take a shower, what’s sort of rolling around in my mind? In this case it was this story, it was these characters, it was this family and their dynamics that really just took hold.
MTV News: And the trip you took with your dad was the initial inspiration for the film?
Yang: This trip I took with my dad was definitely a big inspiration. I hadn’t been back to Taiwan since I was 7 years old — that’s over 20 years. It’s just incredible how distant I was from my heritage. By that same token, when you are that distant from your heritage, there’s a distance between you and your parents because that’s a big part of who they are. It just was a confluence of so many factors. Me getting to know my parents better, getting to know my family better, and becoming more comfortable with my own background.
MTV News: Where did the film start for you in terms of the first scene you envisioned? Was it this ending sequence? Was it something else? Was it something that didn’t even make the final cut?
Yang: I had some of the storyline of young Pin-Jui in Taiwan fairly early on, the scene of him dancing and the scene of him being this young, charismatic, passionate young man. I had some of those scenes pretty early on. I actually found that song that plays in the bar when they’re first dancing, when you first see him as an adult, I found that song really early on. That song [“Tou Xin De Ren”] was a real sort of guide post because, to me, that encapsulated that whole section of the movie. It was this very specific blend of East and West. It’s Yao Su Yong & The Telstars Combo, and you had the Western backing band — this Brit rock or American rock background with the jangly guitars. At the same time, you have this female singer singing in Mandarin over it. It’s really unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It just seemed perfect for that scene. It’s not on Spotify or Apple Music or any of that stuff. I had it bookmarked on YouTube and I put the YouTube address into the script so that people could listen to it as they read that scene.
MTV News: I love that scene so much. There are so many colors and textures. I know you’ve said this story is loosely inspired by your father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan as a young adult, so you could say it’s a love letter to your family and to your heritage. Maybe this is too philosophical, but who’s story is this?
Yang: I feel like it’s the story of the whole family. In some ways, it’s the story of anybody who’s left their home and gone and moved somewhere else and uprooted their lives, and it’s about how you feel split in-between worlds. Obviously, it’s Pin-Jui who undergoes the most dramatic emotional change, but it’s very much Angela’s story as well. She has an awakening, she has an arc. I also love that in an unexpected twist you start following Zhenzhen in the Bronx two-thirds of the way through the movie. I’m curious about her as well. I think it started out as very much an ensemble family movie.
MTV News: The decades-long story of Zhenzhen’s liberation is really wonderful.
Yang: Yes, it’s really gratifying because you’re so used to seeing a version of the “oppressed immigrant wife.” But she really comes into her own. I love her scenes with Peijing. Those are really funny scenes. I just love the idea that she’s happy at the end.
MTV News: You’ve said that in your twenties you didn’t want to be the Asian guy who wrote the Asian stuff. What was the turning point for you? When did you realize that, no, I do want to tell my story?
Yang: I think maturation. It’s becoming comfortable with yourself and also you grow in confidence. I realized: What is the greatest tool we have as people who make films or make shows? It’s your point of view, it’s your perspective, it’s what makes you different from all the other people making films. For me, part of that is my heritage. It’s not all of it but it’s certainly an element. When you’re a child, what do people see? For me, being Asian was a part of my upbringing. It set me apart in some ways and made me stronger in some ways. You take every part of who you are. Someone once said something about how film should include basically everything that’s going on in your life at a certain time. For me, it was partially inspired by me learning more about being Taiwanese and learning more about my family.
MTV News: Was your point of view challenged at all in the making of this film?
Yang: Oh yeah, for sure. I had to grapple with who I was as a writer and a director and what I wanted to say. Obviously, there’s the very simple challenge of I’ve never made a film before, and I’ve never made a drama before. I’ve also never shot in Taiwan. I’ve never made something primarily in a different language, or in this case, two different languages and three total in the movie, only one of which I speak. There were a lot of inherent challenges. The film also changed as we were writing it and shooting it. So that was interesting too.
MTV News: I was going to say, how’s your Taiwanese?
Yang: Terrible! Nonexistent! I wouldn’t even say terrible. Terrible would be a compliment. It’s nonexistent. I’m not able to marshal the words in any sense, I can’t speak the language. But my parents did speak it around the house when I was growing up, and when I went to Taiwan with my dad, he would sit in the front seat and talk to the cab drivers in Taiwanese and I could understand a shocking amount. I just remember sitting there being floored by how much I could understand. I think I have a very basic understanding of very simple words, but I could hear him talk. I remember very distinctly one conversation where we got into a cab and he said, “Just to let you know, I’m visiting from the States. I would never stay in a hotel this nice, I would stay with friends, but my son paid for the room. He insisted we stay here.” So he was being humble but also bragging at the same time. He was humble-bragging about the hotel.
MTV News: How did you kind of navigate the struggle of making a film in three languages, only one in which you’re very proficient in? Were there people on set translating?
Yang: For sure. It’s very arduous every step of the way because you want to be able to correct people’s diction and their accents and word choice. When I’m directing an actor speaking English I’m very particular, I’m very specific about inflection and tone and word choice. So you have to have some level of trust. I also, again, realized partway through the movie that I knew a little bit more Mandarin than I thought. I could understand it a fair amount. I can understand a lot of what’s in the movie now, but there was definitely a moment partway through the production where I had been working with this translator for a while and then I gave a note to the actors in English. They delivered it in Mandarin, then they started freestyling and just started making up some other stuff. I was like, “No, no, no, you can’t just add extra notes!” They were surprised that I could understand. I was like, “I’m watching you. You can’t just make stuff up.” So the actors had a laugh about it.
MTV News: It’s incredible to have Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English spoken in one film.
Yang: I did have a moment of pride because I feel like that’s the first trailer I’ve ever seen that starts in Taiwanese, segues to Mandarin, and ends in English. I’ve never seen that. That’s insane.
MTV News: The film is saying something so beautiful in the sense of, while we may try to deny it, we are the product of our parents. There’s this young boy who is told not to cry, and that idea is passed down from generation to generation, from Pin-Jui to Angela. And then it ends with Pin-Jui, as an older man, crying. You’ve talked about how your relationship with your parents has changed and matured over time. But I want to know, how are you most like your parents?
Yang: I’m glad you picked up on that because that was very intentionally seeded throughout. I actually think that I’m almost an exact split between my two parents. I didn’t realize this until later on in life. One reason for that is because growing up my mom was a little bit more harried. She was taking care of my sister and me. I didn’t really get a sense of her real personality, but I know who she is now. She’s a goofball. She’s so loud and funny and crazy. She’s a high school teacher, and her kids love her. She’s very garrulous and social. There’s a part of me that’s like that. I’m a pretty talkative guy when I get going. I work in comedy, so there’s an element to me that is also funny, I hope.
My dad is a little bit more serious, and he’s really cerebral. He’s a little bit more introverted. He likes to read. For a long period of our lives, our relationship was sending each other articles from the New Yorker or The Economist. Texting each other articles to read and then talking about those issues. He’s really intellectual. So there’s part of him in me in terms of enjoying reading and learning about the world and being really curious and intellectualizing stuff. I consider myself a 50/50 introvert-extrovert split, and that’s exactly what my parents are. Genetics are wild, you know?
MTV News: We know two different versions of our parents, the parents that we knew as children and the parents that we know as adults.
Yang: That’s 100 percent true. By the way, it’s not like my dad is serious all the time. He’s kind of goofy too. He loves dogs. There are just cute things about them that you come to appreciate because you may or may not have an adversarial relationship with them when you’re younger and they annoy you. They’re kind of a symbol of the restrictions on your life. Later on, it’s really rewarding if you guys can get to know each other as people.
MTV News: Have they seen the film?
Yang: I got the links, so we could all watch it separately in our homes. My mom and my sister have just seen it. I think my dad is watching pretty much as we speak, so I’ll probably be talking to him tonight or tomorrow about it.
MTV News: What did your mom think?
Yang: Oh, my mom loved it. My mom said [reading text message], “We have just finished watching Tigertail. We liked it very much. You have done a great job. I am so proud of you. Congratulations.” Then, she was talking about her husband, [and] she was like “[He] really likes Tigertail. He is really impressed by how you know the history of Taiwan.” I was like, “I did research! I didn’t know any of that stuff!”