I’ve been tracking the progress of writer/director Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers for a while now. There weirdly aren’t many indie Kung Fu movies produced in Seattle, so when one does happen, you’re damn right it has my attention. After a long journey, the film finally premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival over the weekend, and doesn’t disappoint when it comes to delivering humor, heart, and face-kicking.
Described and set up as a martial arts comedy, while The Paper Tigers certainly is those things, they take a back seat to other concerns. More than anything, this is a story about growing up, growing apart, things and people that used to mean everything falling by the wayside, and coming to terms with how life and priorities change as we age.
When they were young, all Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) cared about was Kung Fu, honoring their sifu and each other. Brash and cocky, they took on all comers and were inseparable and undefeated as a unity. Fast forward to the present day, they haven’t spoken in years. Danny, once the shooting star of the crew, tries, but as a father who consistently disappoints his son and enrages his ex. Jim has turned his back on Kung Fu for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And Hing is sad and lonely, living on disability. When Sif Cheung (Roger Yuan) passes away under mysterious circumstances, it brings the old gang back together and sends them on a mission of reconciliation, retribution, and beyond rusty Kung Fu skills.
The action in The Paper Tigers is strong. Tran assembled a team of performers who can both act and turn in convincing fights. Many have a background in stunt work, which comes in handy. A quick perusal of the action director and coordinators’ resumes and their bona-fides are crystal clear. Basically, the film is in good hands when it comes to choreography. And Tran and cinematographer Shaun Mayor have the good sense to stand back and largely let the folks with the fighting skills demonstrate their acumen.
It’s especially fun as the Three Tigers, now creaky with age, have let their skills go to pot. Watching these once-mighty warriors trip and stumble through trying to remember their moves and getting thrashed in the process is a damn blast.
But again, the quest for vengeance, back alley fist fights, and even the climactic rooftop showdown with the primary villain are all almost beside the point. They provide the vehicle for these characters, but where The Paper Tigers shines brightest isn’t in punching and kicking, but in the heroic trio.
The film portrays these disaffected friends in an earnest, authentic fashion. It captures the way that no one can hurt you like those closest to you, how people who once spent every moment together can drift away often without realizing it, how priorities change, and how friends don’t always evolve in the same way.
Tran’s script unfurls their story in a gradual, natural beats. We don’t see the betrayal (it wouldn’t be a Kung Fu movie without at least some betrayal) that leads to the lingering strife. They don’t meet up and immediately blurt out the sordid details. Instead, we witness the hurt, the pain, and only gradually do we piece together the reason why they split up in the first place. But the film also captures them coming back together in a way that’s very real. It’s like when you meet up with an old friend you haven’t seen years, but you pick up as if you hung out yesterday. Here, it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first, but once they bury the hatchet, they don’t miss a beat and it’s like they were never apart. Only they suck at Kung Fu now.
This one of the real joys of The Paper Tigers, and it’s down to the script and the three leads. Uy has the charisma to pull off a believable leader-of-the-pack, but also the self-deprecating energy of a middle-aged man who has disappointed everyone, especially himself, and is flailing through life. Jenkins is the class clown of the group, while Yuan gives Hing a sarcastic bravado that masks a lot of pain. And together, they’re believable as friends who have known each other for years, with their own shared knowledge and internal collective language.
The Paper Tigers has fun with the tricks and tropes of the genre. Plot and structure wise, this is a standard story, a tale three students coming together to avenge their master. Along the way, they reflect on their various failings and the meaning of things like honor and duty. (In reality, it’s winds up more of a samurai movie.) It just happens to be in set in modern day America, with three schlubs with dwindling Kung Fu skills. There’s even the cheesy white guy who’s in every dojo (Matthew Page), the one who goes all-in on every aspect of the culture.
Again, while the film adheres to a traditional template, that’s not really what it’s about and it subverts those expectations. In fact, the quest to find out who killed their sifu really meanders and may be the least energetic element of the movie—the main narrative thrust is the relationship between friends. Ultimately, The Paper Tigers delivers what it promises—Kung Fu fighting and laughs—but it’s also a warm, earnest, endearing portrait of friendship. More than the brawls, more than the jokes, that’s what endures from this movie. Movie fights are great and all (come on, this whole website is built on little else), but they mean a lot more when there’s the emotional center to back them up. [Grade: B+]