The phrase “peaceful warrior” will always sound like an oxymoron to those who don’t understand it. The confusion lies in perceiving these terms as in opposition to one another — one can’t be peaceful if one is trained in the ways of war — when a “peaceful warrior” is someone who is in tune, in balance, and only uses force to protect those who can’t help themselves. This is a common thread in martial arts cinema as it stems from the various forms of martial arts themselves which inspire them. This is a core element within Bao Tran’s feature-length directorial debut, The Paper Tigers, a modern martial arts dramedy exploring how the tenets of the martial arts don’t disappear even when we stop practicing.
After 25 years without seeing each other, childhood friends Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) reconnect after learning of the death of their master, Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). As they begin to suspect foul play, the former undefeated trio, The Tigers, find themselves on a path toward a reckoning, one which no amount of dodging, obfuscation, or ignorance will put off.
After directing a series of shorts and serving as a stunt coordinator for three films, Tran’s jump into features is off to a strong start. The Paper Tigers is inventive in its fight choreography, borrowing less from the wire work made famous by wuxia stories and opting for something more practical and realistic (h/t to Ken Quitugua serving as Action Director/Fight Choreographer who also acts in the film). While a martial arts film is incomplete without the fighting, each instance of fisticuffs serves to move the characters’ respective storys forward. Even when the narrative is moving in the more obvious internal awakening/self-actualization direction expected from a journeyman-type story like The Paper Tigers, the execution of it is entirely remarkable and singular, specifically in the way that Tran translates the metaphysical through physical means. In one instance, Tran slowly removes light sources to illustrate the falling away of distractions and, in another, utilizes ghost-imaging on body parts to create the sensation of a temporal event which only the character in-question can see. These are small touches which speak volumes about Tran’s capability to tell a story through the visual application of physical movement and production design.
Part of what makes The Paper Tigers impressive is how it feels like a traditional martial arts film while being entirely modern. After a brief set-up in the introduction illustrating just how good the trio are in their youth, the rest of the film is them trying to recapture that part of themselves. This set-up shows the trio training in Sifu’s garage, taking part in traditional clan rites, and hanging out in a few personal moments of just the three. These moments create the foundation of the human drama within the film, while also using the eras we see them in (’86 and ’91) to color what we think of them. This is right around the release of Jackie Chan’s Police Story (1985), the beginning of Jet Li’s and Donnie Yen’s respective careers in China, the rise of Jean-Claude Van Damme in American cinema, and many others who would shape martial arts cinema of that time. The narrative of The Paper Tigers itself also feels heavily influenced by Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972) featuring a similar story of a star disciple seeking the truth for his master’s death but as a far more comedic actioner than the Bruce Lee classic. Though not from that period (’86-‘91) specifically, the classic aura of martial arts machismo is quickly and well established. With all of these elements lining up, the expectation would be for The Paper Tigers to recreate that which influenced it. Instead, The Paper Tigers uses that expectation to explore a different side of the devout disciple, that of lost faith. This is what makes The Paper Tigers seem so modern. It’s not just the cars, cell phones, and the like, it’s the loss of purpose and principle that comes from losing your way as an adult. So often martial arts stories involve characters in their prime with a long future ahead. Here, Tran uses Danny, Hing, and Jim as a means of exploring why we shouldn’t forget where we’ve come from and the significance of not losing yourself as you grow older. Tran uses much of the “older fighter” aspect to create the humor in the film, and, in so doing, ends up saving The Paper Tigers from being something more intense and dramatic. The Paper Tigers really should be a drama, yet Tran manages to stick and mostly land each small joke in a manner which never undercuts the more emotional beats of the film and, instead, serves to ground them.
From the narrative aspects inspired by Fist of Fury to the inclusion of a move called “poison fingers,” it’s obvious that Tran possesses a deep knowledge of the genre. Current audiences are likely to think the nefarious use of Chinese acupuncture, known as dim mak, is an homage to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004) which used the technique beautifully within the narrative, but it’s more likely to be a call-back to the Shaw Brothers own “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” used in Executioners of Shaolin (1977) and Clan of the White Lotus (1980). These are just two aspects which even a novice to the genre like myself can point out, so one can only wonder what other delicious treats wait for audiences more into the genre of cinema. Considering that Tran’s cast includes a mix of martial arts favorites like Yuji Okumoto (Karate Kid II, in a small role) and Yuan (Double Dragon), along with newcomers Phillip Dang (Mulan, 2020) and Quitugua (Tran’s Bookie), there’s no doubt that the martial arts on display are top notch and worthy of more than one audible “oh, shit.”
If there’s anything to detract from the enjoyment of The Paper Tigers, it’s that the trio are, and this is very intentional, not great humans. Now, this isn’t explored as deeply with Jenkin’s Jim, but certainly Uly’s Danny and Yuan’s Hing are racked over the coals throughout the film. It’s hard not to notice that each of them appear the happiest in the initial set-up sequence and when the three reconnect later in the film. The three are a clan, The Tigers, students of Sifu Cheung, brothers in arms. Their balance, is only found when they are together and in harmony. It’s a lovely bit of subtext that speaks to the larger narrative theme of the peaceful warrior. Be strong of purpose, honest of spirit, and help those who are unable to help themselves. In their own way, each of them lost that understanding and have been running from it for too long. Thanks to the performances from the cast, their journey doesn’t feel untenable and the reclamation of the fighting spirit is one worth rejoicing over. As frustrating as modernity is, especially now, a little bit of hope, a reminder if you will, that it’s never too late to heal and try again, is incredibly welcome. With a clever narrative and some top notch stunts, The Paper Tigers really won’t let you down.
Currently screening at select film festivals, including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official The Paper Tigers website.
If you’d like to know more about Bao’s creative process, make sure to check out EoM contributor Thomas Manning’s interview with writer/director Bao Tran or the complete Q&A from the world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.