The Paper Tigers (2020)
Director (and writer): Quoc Bao Tran
Cast: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Matthew Page, Ken Quitugua, Roger Yuan, Raymond Ma, Jae Suh Park
Three Kung Fu prodigies have grown into washed-up, middle-aged men, now one kick away from pulling their hamstrings. But when their master is murdered, they must juggle their dead-end jobs, dad duties, and old grudges to avenge his death. – IMDB
The Paper Tigers is one of the absolute hidden gems of this year’s festival. Its another type of martial arts movies that focuses on a script that stays true to the traditional practice of Kung Fu. It adds in all the proper Chinese terms that the disciples all learn and the different clans and how the ranking goes with how the “bei mo” challenge for someone who wants to fight for a position or whatnot goes. Its all a new eye at the roots of the virtues of practicing is like honor and brotherhood. “Paper tiger” is a common term in Chinese used to represent someone who appears/claims to be threatening but actually isn’t, which is a perfect title that encapsulates this entire film.
Its great to see someone making movies about these key virtues and values that is much more than the actual fighting bit. Ken Quitagua, who also plays one of the later characters Zhen Fan, is the action director that crafts so great fighting choreography. With that said, they don’t cheap out on the fighting either although its more of an action comedy so the fighting wraps in the rusty out of practice Kung Fu skills of these middle age men who have more heart than skills but slowly finds back some of their groove, at least those able to do it between these three friends: Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins). For them, its about the values and friendships that they treasured when they were young and because of all the curveballs life has thrown them, they seem to have forgotten the basics of those values that don’t thrive so well in their current reality. The course of this “adventure” or “revenge mission” takes them all for a loop, especially for Danny who the movie focuses mostly around his backstory and life with his divorced wife and being a father to a young boy.
The Paper Tigers is a straightforward story. Its clear cut and doesn’t pad it with a lot of unnecessary tangents but sticks true to the three main characters who are portrayed incredibly well by its cast. They have their own issues to deal with and then they have a lot of the rivalry from past and present that they need to deal with. Its all well-paced and everything hits its marks really well throughout. It shows the years of how the Three Tigers get together as children and then young adults and then for some reason that gets revealed in the plot, what separated them when they reunite to find out what happened to their “Si Fu” aka Master. It also brings in the clever use over and over again in different situations about the Chinese proverb, “Two tigers cannot share a mountain” which they word it a little differently but means the same thing essentially.
Whether its the humor or the character or the nod to Kung Fu martial arts, its virtues and respect, its all such a great balance of everything that makes it an exceptionally enjoyable viewing. As a finishing note, as I was watching this, it reminded me of Ang Lee’s debut films of Father Knows Best Trilogy that also used the same sort of story-telling methods of presenting a scenario (entertaining or not, like Pushing Hands or The Wedding Banquet) that actually embedded a lot of traditional customs and exhibiting a new culture to the public. There’s a lot of positive vibes from watching a movie like The Paper Tigers.