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Tzi Ma, left, and Christine Ko star in Alan Yang's Tigertail, coming to Netflix.Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Promoting a Netflix film was, until very recently, a strange dance for filmmakers. On the one hand, directors had to play the excitable artist, genuinely thrilled that their work was getting dispersed on the largest, most accessible platform in the world. On the other, they had to often pretend to be enthused by, or at least overcompensate for their disappointment for, the streaming giant’s sparse commitment to the theatrical model, a.k.a. the be-all-and-end-all of a filmmaker’s chosen medium. If you’re not Martin Scorsese, then you’re probably only going to have your Netflix movie play a handful of cinemas.

But that was then, and the COVID-19 era is now. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what Netflix’s lip service is to the big-screen experience; if your movie is available to stream immediately, then you’re ahead of every single other filmmaker in the world. Which is all to say that Alan Yang isn’t too upset that his feature directorial debut, Tigertail, is forgoing the theatrical component that Netflix originally pledged to support when it signed on to produce the new semi-autobiographical drama.

“I feel lucky in that respect; we did have a theatrical release planned, which obviously we could not go through with because of the virus. But we’re on Netflix, and that’s a service that a lot of people are turning to to fill their days,” says Yang, 36, speaking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I know friends who’ve had movies exclusively intended for theatrical release, and they’re seeing their work getting moved and cancelled now. Hopefully people can turn to this movie to have a little escape and comfort.”

Thanks to what Yang, and likely everyone else in the world, calls “the strangest time in our global history,” Tigertail is set to make that much more of an impact – or, at the very least, find an audience damn near ravenous for new content. And anyone whose streaming queues have recently consisted of titles like Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell or Yang’s own generational-immigration-tale series Master of None (on Netflix) and Little America (on Apple TV+) should be hooked quickly by Tigertail’s thematic and emotional through-lines.

A touching, ambitious and thoroughly realized character study, the new film chronicles the lonely life of Grover (Tzi Ma), a divorced father of two who, upon the death of his mother, begins to recall his youth in Taiwan. As Grover tries to rebuild his relationship with his adult daughter (Christine Ko), his mind flits back and forth between his hardscrabble years working in a Taiwanese factory to his ill-fated decision to move to New York with a wife he barely knew.

What sounds like fine-enough material for a mid-tier streaming drama is given extra weight by both Ma’s deeply felt performance as the withdrawn Grover, and an impressive, transfixing sense of personal history thanks to Yang’s close relationship to his main character – essentially a fictionalized version of his own father.

“Well, it’s very loosely based, I want to stress that ‘loosely,’ because I don’t want my dad seeing that it’s basically a documentary of his life. It’s emphatically not,” says Yang. “I wanted to get some information from him and his life, but it’s not 1:1. I wanted to fill in the gaps with imagination and metaphor and cinematic language as opposed to going beat by beat on his life. Most people’s lives are not movies, after all; they’re not linear stories that have a beginning, middle and end. My goal was to capture some of the emotional truth of his story. But the literal truth is very different.”

The line of what’s biographical and what’s fantastical was blurred further, though, when Yang asked his father to provide the film’s opening and closing voice-over narration – a move that has pushed the pair’s relationship to deeper territory.

“Our relationship was good before in the sense that we didn’t come into conflict, but we definitely got closer over the course of making this,” says Yang. “Part of that also stems back from a trip we took to Taiwan a few years ago, which was a big inspiration for this. I hadn’t been there since I was seven, so going back 20 some odd years later with him, it was natural for him to share stories of his time there, stories that I’d never heard before. Now we talk more and text every day. It was the most rewarding part of making this.”

Perhaps less rewarding, as Tigertail makes its way into the world, will be the film’s obvious, if unfair, comparison to last year’s drama The Farewell – a connection that seems almost impossible to not mention given that both films feature Asian-American families revisiting their ancestral homes, both are the few rare Chinese-language films produced by major Hollywood production companies and both co-star Ma as the family patriarch. (I’m as guilty as anyone, thanks to my fourth paragraph above.) Of course, both films are completely different in style and tone and character and purpose.

Yet at the same time, Yang doesn’t mind that the two films are destined to be spoken about in the same breath. In fact, his sentiments run exactly the opposite.

“I actually don’t want to counteract the comparison at all. The Farewell is a lovely movie, and Tzi happens to be in as well. The joke about him right now is that he’s the whole world’s Asian dad – he’s Awkwafina’s dad in The Farewell, Mulan’s dad in that movie, so I guess that Mulan and Awkwafina are my sisters,” Yang says with a laugh. “Obviously not all Asian-American movies are the same, and not all the faces in them are the same. But look, this was a personal story, and The Farewell was a personal story for [director Lulu Wang]. It’s not an unfair comparison. It’s flattering. I hope the Asian community supports this movie the way they supported that movie.”

And naturally, Tigertail was in the works far before anyone realized the potential success of The Farewell, or even 2018′s hit Crazy Rich Asians. And for that, Yang circles back to playing, albeit sincerely, the grateful Netflix-commissioned artist.

“They took a chance on this from the early stage. When I started writing it, there was no Crazy Rich Asians, no Farewell, no Parasite winning a million Oscars,” he says. “No Asian-American studio film had been made in 25-odd years. So me even writing this movie and having an all-Asian cast was a bit of a leap of faith.”

A leap of faith that can now be viewed at home – whether you hoped theatres would be open by now or not.

Tigertail is available to stream on Netflix starting April 10

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