The Paper Tigers screened as a part of the Boston Asian American Film Festival last night, a fest which also boasted a strong documentary slate this year with the likes of 76 Hours, The Donut King and A Thousand Cuts. Between those and the likes of the Centerpiece Narrative Coming Home Again, BAAFF’s varied offerings mostly skewed toward the dramatic and the serious. Not unheard of for any film festival, of course, but more often than not the diamond in the rough is the oddball film that seems most out-of-place with the hyper-critical festival crowd. The Paper Tigers is that film for this fest, and even in a virtual capacity the kung-fu comedy was a standout.
The setup is a familiar one: once-famous kung-fu prodigies Danny, Hing and Jim are now middle-aged has-beens, more likely to injure themselves in combat than anyone else. But when their former master Sifu dies under suspicious circumstances, the washed-up Three Tigers have to reunite for one last fight. Insofar as the setup is Da 3 Bloods or Expendables Minus Guns, Tigers collects the “one last job”, “past their prime” and “getting the band back together” tropes and deploys them within the traditional bounds of the kung-fu comedy, throwing in an equally familiar absentee father subplot for good measure.
But despite the relative predictability, Tigers has a big heart. There’s nary a whiff of arrogance here, and while the plot points fall into a bit of a paint-by-numbers structure, they do so with an earnestness that’s really hard to root against. Tran Quoc Bao wrote and directed Tigers, and from time to time his direction is inspired. Classic kung fu signatures crop up in a fight scene between the Tigers and a former rival, quick zoom-ins and zoom-outs and overly-dramatic whooshing sound effects accompanying every stance and glare. These are welcome winks to the audience, and a few shots and sequences of a less tongue-in-cheek variety (particularly a fantastic shot of a tennis ball on a string that recalls this moment in Mann’s The Insider, of all things) show a promising young director at work. A story punch-up might have benefitted Tigers and given Bao even more to work with as a director.
The other standout is Ron Yuan’s performance as Hing. Likely the most recognizable face amongst the main cast (Yuan recently appeared in Mulan and was a series regular on Netflix’s Marco Polo), Hing is the funniest and most genuine character in the film. As the most oafish of the bunch, it’s somewhat surprising that he ends up driving the plot more significantly than Danny (Alain Uy), the leader of the Tigers and ostensible main character, or Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), the only one of the three who kept fighting. When Hing’s absent from a vital scene of the movie, it’s noticeable. At its best, the earnestness of Tigers on the whole is exemplified by Yuan’s honest performance.
Perhaps another aspect that saves Tigers from its own plotting and pacing issues is the strong sense of community the movie establishes and maintains. I spent part of the screening trying to pin down the city in which Tigers is set (if it was stated explicitly, I didn’t catch it). Is it Boston? No, too sunny. San Francisco? No, not hilly enough. Turns out the movie was filmed in Seattle, but the point is that Tigers never tries to make the city itself into a character. There are a zillion flicks that lean on B-roll of the NYC skyline as a crutch, but Tigers wisely chooses to focus its world-building on a smaller scale. Master Sifu’s garage training facility, an alleyway behind Sifu’s restaurant, a scene in an empty swimming pool — these are physical locations that feel convincingly real.
Beyond the physical locations, though, is the primary community at the heart of the movie. Though the Tigers haven’t been active for decades, their legend lived on, and the official and unofficial kung fu schools around town are intertwined in a likewise convincing manner. While it’s overly-convenient at times (hunting Sifu’s suspected killer at an underground gym called “The Dungeon” was a bit much), these inroads to Seattle’s Chinatown mostly work well. Tigers flirts with the theme of giving back to this community, too, again coming from Hing’s character as he regretfully recalls turning Sifu down for the opportunity to become more involved.
So while it doesn’t necessarily break new ground, The Paper Tigers knows exactly what it is and plays to its strengths. We’ll look forward to anything Tran Quoc Bao or Ron Yuan are involved with in the future, and hope The Paper Tigers eventually gets the wide release it deserves.
The 2020 Boston Asian American Film Fest concludes today, but you can check out the slate and donate to this wonderful festival here.