Martial arts films hold a special place in cinema. Whether it’s the swirling wonder of wuxia or a straight-forward bare-knuckle brawler, the Asian import captured the imagination in the 1970s – 1980s and has yet to loosen its hold on audiences. It’s association to Asian identify leads to a great deal of tropes in cinema, as well as stereotyping in real life. This is why the current trend of Asian stories being told by members of the community is so incredibly important. While there shouldn’t be a lock on who should or shouldn’t tell stories, audiences should more often seek out the ones told from the perspective of and with influence by the community around whom the story centers. Enter The Paper Tigers from first-time feature director Bao Tran, who made the leap from short films with this martial arts dramedy that utilizes tropes to transform them, imbuing them with new found power. Thanks to Well Go USA, if you missed The Paper Tigers during its lengthy festival run in 2020 or the wide theatrical release in May, you can bring home Tran’s adventure beginning June 22nd.
If you’d like to get familiar with The Paper Tigers without spoilers, I recommend checking out the initial 2020 L.A. Asian Film Festival film review or EoM contributor Thomas Manning’s 2020 Fantasia Film Festival interview with director Bao Tran. Moving forward, expect the possibility of spoilers.
Three friends known as The Paper Tigers — Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) — were not only talented students of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) but were as close as brothers. All of this changed when, as teens, Danny abandoned Jim during an overseas competition, beginning a separation that would last over two decades. Now, when their master is slain, The Paper Tigers gather together to figure out who is responsible and why their master was killed in hopes of bringing about justice. Problem is, adulthood hasn’t been as kind to them as their teen years, leaving the formerly fearsome trio scrambling to reconnect not just with each other, but with themselves.
Upon finishing The Paper Tigers, I couldn’t help but notice how Tran switches up the common martial arts narrative trope of the student avenging the master in two ways: (1) the student is significantly older than in the tropes and (2) is beyond the flower of their youth. This allows the film to explore several concepts at once: who we are versus who we were, how long is someone a student and what does that mean years later, and the responsibility we owe to each other. It would be easy enough for Tran to have made his story a straight comedy with dramatic elements (think: Keanu (2016)), using the lack of physical prowess on two of the three Tigers to draw out its comedy. Instead, the comedy is purely situational, with the fact that the formerly strong Danny (nicknamed Danny 8 Hands) as the weakest of the bunch is the foundation to explore the subtextual elements surrounding the investigation. I don’t think it’s any kind of coincidence that Matthew Page’s Carter is presented as the bad guy, a former childhood rival of the Tigers who remains in good physical health and an active member of the martial arts community in Seattle. This white man has attained that which the Tigers have not. Though Jim does not appear of Asian descent, appropriation is not unfamiliar to him and his community. Spoiler-alert, but Carter is not the bad guy, he’s merely the personification of appropriation and how that leads to smugness of one community to another. Tran makes it clear via home video footage that Carter is an obvious rival of the Tigers, but also that the Tigers looked down on everyone, thinking that their strength leading to victory gives them divinity to do as they please. The folly of youth, to be sure, but the videos showcase how unnecessarily cruel they were in their fights with Carter. It doesn’t justify adult Carter’s presumption of superiority or remove the obvious appropriation the character represents, but it also doesn’t make the character a bad guy, either. More than anything, if you perceive the interactions of adult Carter and all three Tigers beyond the lens of the catalyst (death of their sifu), their dialogue, their cattiness, and all of the resentment and frustration is nothing more than adolescent regression.
By the way, don’t presume that The Paper Tigers is just about exploring one’s past, as Tran forces his characters to explore their place in the present, as well. Danny, Hing, and Jim engage not just with their past rival, but with a new group of fighters, represented by the real-life incredible martial arts collective known as Martial Club, who seek to take on acclaim by falsifying their connection to Sifu Cheung. One does not engage in fights not worth having, but one also doesn’t proclaim honorifics where none exist. The fight between The Tigers and the trio carries different weight than the one with Carter. For one, the fight with Carter is as much about old wounds as it is their new loss. For two, the fight with the trio only occurs because the trio claim to have information they will only share if they are beaten in combat. This enables the audience to see just how far The Tigers have fallen from their training and are, yet, still formidable. It’s a glimmer of hope that the old ways of honor and respect may survive against others who practice the martial arts for fame and glory. Based on the few scenes with Sifu Cheung, the audience understands that fighting for glory is not appropriate, and the staging of this scene between old and young highlights the message Sifu failed to get through to his students. Kudos to Tran for working in a depth of emotional detail into a film which can easily be enjoyed with or without understanding.
As a home release, I’m delighted to report that The Paper Tigers comes with a wealth of material and it’s not as you’d expect. The previews for other Well Go USA projects and the theatrical trailer are there, as is fairly standard, but the remaining three features — Behind the Scenes, Deleted Scenes, and Bloopers — are unlike most releases out there. For example, Bloopers is more like alternate line-readings that go awry, sending the cast into hysterics. Behind The Scenes enables Tran, the cast, and members of the crew to offer their insights, not just about the production, but about what making the film means. Hearing producer/actor Yuki Okumoto (The Karate Kid Part II (1986)) speak about how previous Asian films captured audiences’ attention and entered the zeitgeist, yet failed to create new opportunities for Asian-led stories, is particularly moving, given the influx of films and television programs which are currently doing just that. What will surprise fans of The Paper Tigers most is the included deleted scenes which include an entire storyline focused on adult Jim. Usually deleted scenes allow for a glimpse at removed material which rarely would’ve had a significant impact on the story, but these are incredibly moving as Jim struggles between being the couch to an up-and-coming MMA fighter and his duty as a Tiger. Considering Tran primarily focuses on Danny, with characters introduced or activated based on his decisions, removing these scenes enables the film to maintain a clarity of focus. It is, however, lovely to be able to enjoy these on your own. It’s also worth noting that the deleted scenes often are structured like behind the scenes materials, so that the line between shooting the scene and actors reacting to being on set is a bit blurred. Frankly, it made the film feel even more intimate as a result.
Keep in mind that when it came to action films as a kid, I was equal opportunity. I was as into Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Last Action Hero (1993), as well as Stallone’s Tango & Cash (1989), Demolition Man (1993), and Judge Dredd (1995). You know, the typical action heroes for an ‘80s kid. But I also devoured films like American Ninja (1985), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), No Retreat, No Surrender (1986), Bloodsport (1988), and Best of the Best (1989). Being without a graceful bone in my body, it was as close as I could get to the martial arts. A film like Tran’s The Paper Tigers succeeds because it speaks to fans of those films as well as to fans of recent releases. It appeals to fans of classic Asian cinema, while being open to what’s on the horizon. More than that, it never loses itself amid the action or comedy, holding fast to the ideals and tenets of martial arts: protection of self and others, never harm. With that in mind, The Paper Tigers reveals itself as an affirming, family film. Though I do recommend making sure your younger members are either well-versed in the language of Asian cinema or are closer to the teen side before sharing.
The Paper Tigers Special Features
- Behind The Scenes
- Deleted Scenes
- Well Go USA Previews
In select theaters and on digital May 7th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD June 22nd, 2021.
For additional information, head to Well Go USA’s official The Paper Tigers website.