Observing the cycle of mental illness across generations: my take on Tigertail

Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Tigertail is a film that helps close a wide gap in today’s cinematic landscape: stories that bridge the cultural and generational issues of Asian Americans and their first generation immigrant parents. We’ve seen other films that scratch at this theme in recent years such as The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians. What sets Tigertail apart is that it dives more deeply into uncharted territory: the cyclical nature of mental illness and how it manifests across generations within Asians and Asian Americans.

We follow the love story of Pin-Jui, an adventurous, reckless and fairly carefree boy from a poor family. He grows up in the grassy fields of a Kuomintang-run Taiwan with his grandmother, who chides him to never cry and be strong. We see our first foreshadowing of repressed emotions and what sets the tone for a long life of struggle.

As he grows up and time passes, he lives with his mother, Minghua. Minghua and Pin-Jui work at a factory where the lack of safety regulation means that they regularly put their lives at risk. While working at the factory, he falls in love with Yuan — an equally lighthearted and fun-loving young woman who is from an upper class family (this is according to Pin-Jui — we never actually get to see any evidence of this except for the colorful clothes she wears in contrast to his basic white shirt and trouser ensemble).

Pin-Jui recognizes the hardship he and Minghua are going through by working at the factory. Despite being in a relationship with Yuan, he commits to marrying the factory owner’s daughter, Zhenzhen. He hopes to “marry up.” Marrying her means being able to move to the United States, access more money, and most importantly, eventually be financially comfortable enough to lift Minghua out of poverty. He makes this his life goal and directs all his focus and attention to achieving it. Pin-Jui and Yuan ultimately separate without ever having properly said goodbye.

Based on the sum of these events, we already see how his parents’ behaviors have affected his own. Combined with having grown up in hardship, Pin-Jui understandably prioritizes security over staying with Yuan. His mother chose to work over raising him during his early years in order to provide for him. He chooses to marry Zhenzhen, whom he barely connects with in order to provide for his mother. He doesn’t communicate any of his plans to Yuan, and leaves her blindsided.

We eventually learn that he devotes a majority of his time working while living in the United States. In doing so, he makes enough money to bring Minghua, but Minghua refuses and prefers to stay in Taiwan. His main motivation and goal did not realize, and he slumps deeper and deeper into depression. He is unable to connect with Zhenzhen, and Zhenzhen seeks out her own joy elsewhere. Yuan remains in his memory as a very vibrant and happy time for him. While not working, he continues to compare Zhenzhen to Yuan. As we all know, comparison is the thief of happiness.

They eventually have a daughter together, Angela, who grows up to be — you guessed it — exactly like her father. Angela was presumably born in the States, and although she hasn’t experienced any of the economic poverty that her father worked his entire to lift his family out of — she experiences the mental hardship in full force. Angela grows up with continued pressure to perform from her father, is told not to cry and be strong, and spends a lion’s share of her time at work. Her husband, Eric, leaves her — and we are led to assume that he leaves her because of her repeated prioritization of work. She is broken and sad that he has left, and notes regrettably, “and it might be my fault.” This hopeful moment suggests an opportunity for change, given that she’s independently able to recognize a harmful pattern.

A vast majority of people grow up to embody the same issues of their parents, and Angela is no exception. However, her thought process and behaviors suggest that she has the power to break the cycle of generational mental illness. It is not easy, nor is it guaranteed; however the sacrifices of her father may have helped make this possible for her in a way. By not having the additional dimension of severe economic hardship, there may be more space in her life to embrace a different pattern of living and thinking.

Tigertail brought tears to my eyes. I appreciated the raw moments from Pin-Jui and his own internal struggles. I felt optimistic when Angela continued to relay positive signals to her father that suggested a deeper yearning for emotional connection, even though he created a disappointing childhood experience for her. If there’s a film that will induce you to think about your own mental health proclivities with your parents — it’s this one.

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