Toward the end of our conversation about Netflix's Tigertail, I tell actor Christine Ko something that a friend once shared with me. Growing up the daughter of Korean immigrants in Seattle, her father had always reminded her that she was American first — an American-Korean, he said. I wondered if Ko, born to Taiwanese parents in the Midwest and raised by her aunt and uncle, felt like that too, or if her character Angela had internalized a similar feeling, ingrained into her by her Taiwanese father Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma). Their relationship, or lack thereof, is the emotional center of writer and director Alan Yang's first feature film, a family drama that spans generations.
"I love the idea of being American-Taiwanese," Ko tells me over the phone. She's currently "chilling" in her apartment in Los Angeles with a cup of coffee. ("I don't have heels on, so that's awesome," she adds.) "It's very specific to people who feel like they're from two different cultures. Because being American is something that we should be proud of. It's not something that needs to be defined in a certain way. This is our culture, too."
But Yang's trilingual film isn't so much interested in depicting a life in-between two cultures, which Ko refers to as the "identity crisis thing" that so many second-generation kids experience. Instead of emphasizing the differences between an immigrant father and his American daughter, Tigertail understands their similarities, even if the characters themselves don't. As the story switches between Pin-Jui’s past and present, scenes of Angela dealing with feelings of disillusionment and loneliness in adulthood mirror that of her father as a young adult, navigating life as a husband — in a marriage of convenience, not love — and foreigner in the Bronx.
"I read the script and cried my eyes out," Ko says, adding that the story was "a little bit too close to home." For starters, the actor explains, "You get an email about a film or a show, looking for a Taiwanese American maybe once a year." But Ko could also relate to Angela on a deeper level.
Born in Chicago and raised in Acworth, Georgia, by her aunt and uncle (who adopted her when she was three), Ko didn't have a relationship with her biological father, the late Taiwanese megastar Frankie Kao, until she was in her twenties. So much of Angela's story is wanting to connect with her father, to understand him, but not knowing how to. In fact, there's very little dialogue spoken between her and Ma throughout the film. "I was yearning to work on a project like that," she says. "The whole film is about her trying to just get a sentence out of him, and everything she gets in return is criticism. A lot of people can relate to that, having their parents judge them or criticize their choices." Ko certainly can.
Despite being born into show business — her biological mom is also an actor in Taiwan — Ko didn't pursue acting until after she secured a college degree. Still, her parents didn't understand why she forewent a stable career to wait tables and drive Ubers around Los Angeles while chasing her Hollywood dreams. "Growing up, I refrained from saying how I really felt," she says. "And it was because my parents were very strict. They were not the type of parents who hugged me, or said, 'I love you' and 'I'm proud of you.' I always wanted it, but I never expressed it to them."
Similarly, Angela also refrains from showing emotion, a trait she got from her dad. As a young girl, she's told not to cry, that it never solved anything. She spends so much of the film asking herself why her father is so emotionally unavailable that she fails to see it in herself, to see the ripple effects it's had on her own personal relationships. "Some of us don't want to admit to it, but we are a lot like our parents," Ko says. "The way that we are in our own personal relationships is very similar to how we grew up. And whether that's positive and negative, it's definitely something to be aware of. And if it is something negative, where you're like, 'I wish I was more emotionally available,' then how great is it to discover that while you're living your life."
As such, working on Tigertail helped her redefine her relationships with both sets of parents. She was able to fully empathize with them in ways that only time and perspective bring. When Ko traveled to Taiwan with the production, her birth mom came to watch her film her final scene with Ma. "She had never seen any of my work before," Ko says. Yang's grandmother was also on set that day. The scene is a moment of catharsis for Pin-Jui, a sequence in which he takes his daughter to the place he grew up: the rural community known as Tigertail. Standing outside his old family home, long since uninhabited, he recalls the ghosts of his past and weeps.
"I felt a sense of being home," the actor recalls filming the scene. "I had this realization of, 'This is where my grandma grew up, this is where my birth mom lives.' This is a life that they had, that they haven't seen on-screen before. It made me appreciate all the things that my parents did for me. I'm really lucky that I have many parents. I have two moms, two dads, and I have a very different relationship with all of them. My Georgia mom raised me, and my birth mom influenced my acting career. After this film, I was able to tell them, 'You're both so important to me, and you're both so human.'"
It's that humanity that spoke to her from the very first time she read the script. For Ko, Tigertail isn't just an Asian-American immigrant story; it's a universal tale of connection, and just how isolated you feel without it. "We've all had relationships that have not gone exactly the way we want them to," she says. Sometimes they're salvageable and other times they're not. Pin-Jui, who first appears to viewers as a child alone in the rice fields of occupied Taiwan, ends the film alongside his adult daughter decades later. They walk through those same fields together.
After wrapping her scenes in Taiwan, Ko strolled through that same land with her biological mom. "It made me more in tune with my culture and my family," she says. "And instead of hiding that identity, I realized that's what makes me special — and that's what makes them special. It's who they are, and they should be proud."
And who is Ko? "I'm taking that American-Taiwanese thing with me, by the way. Thank you for that," she says before we hang up. "I can't wait to tell it to my friends."