Marking the directorial debut of Asian-American filmmaker Tran Quoc Bao, The Paper Tigers is a martial arts comedy-drama set in Seattle. Starring Alain Uy, Ron Yuan and Mykel Shannon Jenkins, the film centres on three former martial artists who unite after being estranged for 30 years to avenge their late master.
In a plot reminiscent of Bruce Lee classic Fist of Fury, a plot focusing on a student or disciple facing off a rival to avenge their master is an established narrative. But in The Paper Tigers, it is brought bang up-to-date with not one but three different students, who were keen students as teenagers. Despite a warning from their master, Sifi Cheung (Roger Yuan), not to get involved in fistfights, their home videos showed their talents in smalls scuffs away from their makeshift school. Fast-forward 30 years and they are now mostly shadows of their former selves – star student Danny (Uy) is now a workaholic pacifist and struggling father, and Hing (Yuan) is now suffering from a long-term knee injury and weight issues while Jim (Jenkins) has distanced himself from his old friends to focus on his own martial arts school. But when their master’s death arises suspicion, their long-standing friendship and brotherhood drive them to investigate further.
With a tried-and-tested formula, The Paper Tigers‘ plot and comedy stray into the cliché and at times, predictable. The protagonists are three middle-aged men, two of whom are nowhere near their physical prime, who are unable to contend with their foes who are (unsurprisingly) younger, faster or muscular – or even worse, all three. This results in some amusing moments and surprising fight scenes but with such a familiar trope of comedy running through it, the finer details of the plot such as the emotional relationship between not only the three protagonists but also their late master become lost.
Despite their friction and suppressed talents, the trio’s deep sense of respect for not only kung fu but their master and in a sense, Danny (affectionately known as ‘dai si hing’, or ‘older brother’), is engaging. Through quiet discussions or reflective moments, Tran reminds audiences that kung fu is not just about fights and action but an understanding as to what makes an effective fighter. As a result, the screenplay offers a cultural aspect that is both grounded, humble yet uncommon amid Western martial arts films. This is also highlighted through Hing’s knowledge of Chinese medicine, which proves to be more useful than a couple of painkillers.
With a certain creative vision in mind, Tran chooses to highlight a cast that comprises people of colour. With Chinese, African-American and even Filipino actors taking centre stage in an American martial arts film, he paints a multicultural picture amid a canvas prone to Asian stereotypes. It is then ironic, and sometimes cringe-worthy, that the film’s only Caucasian character, Danny’s long-time rival Carter (Page), is more familiar with Chinese culture than the three protagonists – albeit full of arrogance and impractical proverbs. The endearing camaraderie between the leads showcases a well-developed bond that evokes humour and heart without resorting to bitch slaps and ‘old man’ jokes.
Along with its diverse cast, The Paper Tigers‘ strongest weapon is its entertaining fight scenes. Showcasing innovative choreography and clever direction from Tran (who was mentored by notable Hong Kong director Corey Yuen), the scenes are impressively entertaining without being overly ambitious. The final fight scene, taking place on a rooftop, is especially entertaining as it gives ZeroGravity stunt team member and the film’s action designer Ken Quitugua to chance to showcase his amazing skills.
Overall, The Paper Tigers doesn’t stray too far from the conventional, but it delivers the right amount of humour and thrills to entertain even the most sceptical of audiences.
The Paper Tigers is part of the Fighting Spirit Film Festival 2021, which will be taking place in Stratford Picturehouse in London between 11 and 12 September. It will be available on-demand in the UK on 20 September.
Director: Clio Bernard
Stars: Adeel Akthar, Claire Rushbrook
Runtime: 95 minutes