Lo, writer-director’s Tran Quoc Bao’s debut feature might be a superhero story. On a thunderous, sinister night in Seattle, a Mr. Cheung (Roger Yuan) — sifu to three gung fu disciples Danny, Hing and Jim — is cornered by an unknown assailant. Makes his last stand in an alley. He loses. It is fatal. The assailant walks away. Dramatic music over a flaming insignia. If this isn’t an Uncle Ben, or Thomas Wayne, moment for the trio, also known as the tragedy that fuels the pursuit to become the city’s savior, then what is? Right?!
Well, no. But that is what makes The Paper Tigers special. For the three guys, sifu’s death does stir things, but not to the extent that they can drop everything and be avengers — certainly not the grey-haired Danny (Alain Uy) who is in the middle of a custody battle, or the bespectacled Hing (Ron Yuan) who just had a workplace accident, or Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) who has left gung fu behind so that he can work at a boxing gym. It’s in this tug-of-war between being a responsible adult and being a deserving mentee that the film reveals itself as RED meets What We Do in the Shadows, minus the espionage and vampirism but all-in on the elderly charms and constant hilarity — along with impactful gung fu displays and lessons that can hook the heart.
Bao’s film’s biggest victory is in its casting — down to the roles with less screen time (Joziah Lagonoy, playing Danny’s uber-cute son Ed, is a highlight). For the leading three, casting director Yumi Takada, who assumes the same role in Hideo Kojima’s first three Metal Gear Solid games, has scored gold; Uy embodies a weathered soul alluring understatement, Yuan is pure firecracker regardless of which mindset his character is in, and Jenkins is the hand to the glove that is the group’s wisdom central.
That is them as individuals, and it’s even better when they share the same space as their chemistry evokes the meaning of being a “double delight” or “triple threat.” In spirit more than in body, obviously, as life has plenty of moves to erode one’s gung fu’s essentials like fitness, sense of control or how that move is executed. All three share this weakness, one that gets exploited by their beimo-for-info leads including three schoolless gung fu punks (Philip Dang, Andy Le and Brian Le) and roided-up bully Carter (Matthew Page) in some brutal-but-hysterical battles. Here’s a preview — our guy bows, the other guy bows, and then whoosh–schwing–tak–bang–“Not the hair! Not the hair!”–whoosh–zing–whoosh–CRASH! Kris Kristensen’s editing helps sell the effect, although one wonders why the approach is the same for many of the combat-less sequences.
The spirit also seems to be where Bao would like The Paper Tigers to roar the loudest. The mission is to have us search for whoever killed Sifu Cheung with the Tigers, but the intention is, together with the guys, to realize self-reflection is an incredible power source. Dai si hing Danny, Ah Hing and Ah Jim keep holding on to their time as Tigers, which Bao makes clear in a VHS-esque opening montage (there it is!) showing our leads looking like stuntmen-slash-models Yoshi Sudarso, Peter Sudarso and Gui DaSilva-Greene — respectively, that they forget the paper trait that defines their being. We’re talking about easier concussions, falls, faints, twisted knees and the like. That said, only by being aware of our paper self do we have a shot at becoming tigers equipped for the current jungle. Remember how Batman must first embrace his fear to grow to where he can make it out of The Pit in The Dark Knight Rises? The notion also gives the film a timely swing, as recent society has proven that you being a member of a tiger-respecting culture can be a valid reason for others to tear you apart like paper.
That Caped Crusader reference aside, you can see how The Paper Tigers doesn’t have to be a superhero film to be a witty experience. And there is no problem thinking of it as one, either.
Directed by: Tran Quoc Bao
Written by: Tran Quoc Bao
Cast: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Raymond Ma, Matthew Page, Joziah Lagonoy, Jae Suh Park