Stars: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Roger Yuan, Raymond Ma, Ken Quitugua
By Harris Dang
Before this review can begin, I feel obligated to state this important fact first. I love John G. Avildsen’s “The Karate Kid” (1984); a sterling classic underdog story that not only features the appeal of martial arts but also deep characters, fantastic acting and important life lessons that are still noteworthy and poignant today.
Why have I stated this fact? It is because that martial arts films these days are becoming more and more like stunt reels rather than actual cinematic stories. Even with all the fantastic fight choreography and technical accomplishments, audiences will struggle to last through a feature film if it does not have an integral story or characters one can relate to.
Films like “The Karate Kid” are becoming more uncommon as they lack the slice-of-life sensibility and often rely on aggression and blatancy to appeal to the martial arts crowd. When I heard the news about the martial arts comedy/drama “The Paper Tigers” (2020) by Vietnamese-American filmmaker Tran Quoc Bao was premiering at Fantasia Film Festival this year, it piqued my interest. It promised all the things I had hope for in martial arts films while showcasing Asian-American talent. Will “The Paper Tigers” live up to its promise?
The film starts off with a fight in a dark alley where an elderly martial artist master Sifu Cheung (played by Roger Yuan, best known for his roles in “Shanghai Noon” (2000) and “Black Dynamite” (2009) is killed by a young assailant. Tragedy ensues as the master’s three students Danny, Hing and Jim (Alain Uy, Ron Yuan and Mykel Shannon Jenkins) hear of his death and unite after their long estrangement in order to avenge their master. But their lack of consistency in their training as well as their rapidly aging physicality and adulthood duties make their mission harder than they initially anticipated.
The brief synopsis sounds like a typical storyline for a martial arts film and indeed on first impression, the framework plays out that way. And yet, the film is a genre mix of character drama, underdog story and gongfu comedy and it features characters who are middle-aged, which provides a different perspective. But what makes the film stand out is writer/director Tran’s insistence in believable, sympathetic characters in which one can root for as well as its low-stakes in storytelling that relies more on character arcs and small victories that result in big ways.
“Yuan is fantastic as Hing as he displays a remarkable sense of comedic timing as well as being able to show conviction as being the voice of reason; the glue that holds the friendship together.”
For example, the story is essentially a framework for showing how impactful the martial arts spirit can be and how it informs the characters. The three leads are all battling their own inner conflicts and the film wisely establishes the combat sequences (choreographed with ferocity by Ken Quitugua) in an organic manner that not only delivers to the action quotient but also signals the progression of the characterizations. It also helps that the actors are martial arts practitioners/stuntpeople themselves, which lend the combat scenes credibility.
In the beginning of the story, Sifu Cheung says that gongfu without honour is just fighting and that is the major conceit of the film. The combat in the film are not about attaining victory, reliving past glories or rising to power but about making a sincere effort and attaining self-improvement and writer/director Tran manages to make the small victories substantial and felt.
The characters are not unique in any way nor do their conflicts stand out in terms of innovation. But they are vividly portrayed by the cast that make them feel fresh again. Uy displays the perfect balance of being reticent and brash as Danny; a man whose life balance is more than a tad askew due to his work and his family commitments via his ex-wife Caryn, played compellingly by Park Jae Suh. His relationship (or lack thereof) with his son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy) is convincing, believable and poignant as the two try to bond but Danny’s lack of focus gets in the way.
Yuan is fantastic as Hing as he displays a remarkable sense of comedic timing as well as being able to show conviction as being the voice of reason; the glue that holds the friendship together. While Jenkins is great as Jim, the more focused of the three who still holds a grudge against Danny due to a past discretion. The chemistry between the three is fun to watch and at times, it reminded me of the chemistry between the popular trio of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao; especially when they try to psych each other up in order to defeat their opponents.
“The Paper Tigers” is a charming and heartfelt throwback to the martial arts films that were more about the spirit of said art and not just about the combat within.”
Speaking of references to other works, Tran wisely stays away from making “The Paper Tigers” a self-referential pastiche/parody but he does include some amusing nuggets (like name-calling “Kung Fu Panda” (2008) as well as a cute cameo by executive producer Yuji Okumoto, best known for his villainous role in “The Karate Kid – Part II” (1986) as well as introducing the character of Carter, played with hilariously over-the-top abandon by Matthew Page. His role in the film is at first seen as an antagonist and can be seen as a criticism of the appropriation of Asian culture by Caucasians. But it can also be seen as a polar opposite to the lead characters; a reflection of the flaws of the leads as well.
This approach also applies to the other antagonists in the film. They appear to be bad guys in face value but they never feel like they are due to the fact that their path in their training in martial arts has been lost. It is this attention to detail that makes the film feel more three-dimensional and dramatically sound.
But this approach does have its drawbacks. The film aims for a more attentive approach in its climactic payoff that also tries to have its cake and eat it too with a final fight. But it may not be the most satisfying approach for those who are looking for a straight-forward, no-holds barred victory, so it all lies on one’s expectations.
Overall, “The Paper Tigers” is a charming and heartfelt throwback to the martial arts films that were more about the spirit of said art and not just about the combat within; a film with great fight scenes, genial comedy, a nostalgic old-school approach to storytelling and a great message. Highly recommended.
“The Paper Tigers” will be having its World Premiere at Fantasia Film Festival from 20th August to 2nd September.