May 16, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Tran Quoc Bao
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the male-centric action dramedy “The Paper Tigers” features a predominantly Asian cast (with some African Americans and white people) representing the middle-class, working class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: Three middle-aged men, who used to be friends and aspiring kung fu masters in their youth, reunite after their former mentor dies, and they investigate their suspicions that their ex-instructor did not die of natural causes.
Culture Audience: “The Paper Tigers” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an unconventional kung fu movie that includes a murder mystery and touches of goofy comedy.
“The Paper Tigers” plays with kung fu tropes and upends a lot of these stereotypes with a story that skillfully blends gripping action, emotional authenticity and the right amount of comic relief. Written and directed by Tran Quoc Bao, “Paper Tigers” (which was funded largely through a Kickstarter campaign) is the type of film that perhaps could only have been made independently, because it tells a story that major movie studios don’t seem interested in telling: What it’s like for middle-aged men to get back into the kung fu fighting that they loved in their youth. Some of the movie’s pacing drags at times, and the dialogue can be occasionally over-simplistic, but these minor flaws are outweighed by a story that is very entertaining overall.
“The Paper Tigers,” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, begins with a nighttime scene that serves as the catalyst for the rest of the story: A restaurant cook named Sifu Cheung (played by Roger Yuan) is in a physical fight with an unseen assailant in the back alley of the restaurant. The attacker makes some kung fu moves on him, including a deadly move that’s later described in the film as “poison fingers.” Sifu Cheung succumbs to this fatal blow and dies alone in the alley.
Who was Sifu Cheung? As shown in flashbacks presented as old home video footage throughout the movie, he used to mentor three special kung fu disciples: Danny, Hing and Jim, who were all classmates in the same school. Sifu Cheung began giving them private after-school lessons in 1986, when the boys were about 10 years old. Danny is considered to be the most talented, Hing is the jokester of the group, and Jim is the most dedicated student of kung fu. The actors portraying the boys during this time period are Kieran Tamondong as Danny, Bryan Kinder as Hing and Malakai James as Jim.
Sifu Cheung, whose background is kept vague and mysterious in the movie, was working as a restaurant cook for years as his day job. The restaurant where he died in the back alley is the same restaurant where he worked at in the 1980s when he began teaching kung fu to Danny, Hing and Jim. It’s never explained why Sifu Cheung is working as a restaurant cook instead of having a professional job in kung fu, but the way it’s described in the movie, he’s too humble to seek glory for himself.
However, he’s a local kung fu legend among people in the community. And being mentored by Sifu Cheung is considered to be a very high honor. Sifu Cheung likes to teach kung fu lessons to boys (there’s no mention of him having any female students), and only a chosen few are considered to be his special protégés. Danny, Hing and Jim were Sifu Cheung’s last-known protégés. And the three boys were given the nickname the Three Tigers.
The Three Tigers have a nemesis named Carter, who is a relentless bully and a wannabe kung fu master. One of the reasons why the boys want to take kung fu lessons is so they can defend themselves against Carter. By 1993, when the boys were teenagers, they’re good enough at kung fu to defeat Carter in kung fu battles. The actors portraying the teenagers during this time period are Yoshi Sudarso as Danny, Peter Adrian Sudarso as Hing, Gui DaSilva-Greene as Jim and Mark Poletti as Carter.
Danny does so well in kung fu that he’s accepted to participate in a major kung fu tournament in Japan. Jim also goes on the trip as Danny’s backup, in case Danny gets an injury and can’t compete in the tournament. When the teens find out that they’ve been accepted to be in this tournament, they’re naturally elated. However, it’s revealed later in the story that Sifu Cheung disapproves of his disciples participating in these types of competitions because he thinks prize money corrupts the honor of kung fu fighters.
The camaraderie between the the Three Tigers fell apart because of something happened during this tournament that caused a major falling out between Danny and Jim. It’s eventually revealed in the movie what happened to cause this rift. Hing, who was caught in the middle of this feud, didn’t want to take sides. And all three friends drifted apart soon afterward. It’s mentioned later in the story that Danny, Jim and Hing also became alienated from Sifu Cheung because he was angry about Danny and Jim’s participation in the tournament, and he became disillusioned over teaching kung fu.
In the present day, “Paper Tigers” is told from Danny’s perspective. He is now a divorced dad in his 40s who works in insurance. And he left kung fu behind a long time ago, ever since that tournament in Japan that caused the end of his friendship with Jim. Danny and his ex-wife Caryn (played by Jae Suh Park) have a tense relationship because she thinks Danny is too flaky when it comes to spending time with their sensitive and adorable son Ed (played by Joziah Lagonoy), who’s about 9 or 10 years old.
It’s mentioned several times in the movie that Danny and Caryn have agreed to joint custody of Ed. However, for whatever reason, the movie only depicts Danny having weekend visitations. Maybe the arrangement is that Ed lives full-time with Danny for part of the year and lives full-time with Caryn for the other part of the year.
Whatever the arrangement is, it’s not working out the way that Caryn wants because Danny frequently lets his job take precedence over taking care of Ed. In one of the movie’s scenes, Danny is late to pick up Ed, and he knows that Caryn will be upset. In order to placate her and a disappointed Ed, Danny spontaneously tells Ed that they’re going to a nearby amusement park named Magicland. Caryn is skeptical that Danny can afford the cost (which is a hint that he has money problems), but Danny assures her that he can pay for everything.
And wouldn’t you know, just as Danny and an elated Ed are driving to Magicland, Danny gets a call from his job. And he ends up having to go into the office to do some weekend work. Danny is so embarrassed about this parental letdown that he asks Ed to lie to Caryn and tell her that they went to Magicland. It’s one of a few examples in the movie that show how unexpected things happen to Danny that test his parental skills and integrity.
It’s shown throughout the movie that Danny has become so disenchanted with kung fu, he doesn’t even really like to talk about it anymore. Before Danny was about to drive Ed to Magicland, they encountered an angry man named Tommy (played by Ray Hopper), who was about to pick a fight with Danny because Danny’s car was blocking Tommy’s car that wanted to exit the parking lot. The furious man began to show signs of physical aggression and made racist comments to Danny, who drove away without escalating the argument.
Danny uses this incident as a teachable moment to Ed. He tells his son: “A lot of boneheads think they can solve things with their fists, like that guy back there. You know what to do? You do what Dad did: Be the bigger man and walk away.” Danny brings up this incident after Ed asks him about some old kung fu photos of Danny that Ed had found. Danny avoids going into details with Ed about his kung fu past.
Danny finds out about Sifu Cheung’s death when Hing shows up unexpectedly at Danny’s house and tells him that Siefu Cheun died of a heart attack. They make plans to go to the funeral. The two former friends haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years, but they pick up right where they left off when they reunite. Danny only agrees to go to the funeral when he finds out from Hing that Jim won’t be there.
At the funeral, Danny and Hing see their old enemy Carter (played by Matthew Page), who brags that he was very close to Sifu Cheung. Danny and Hing know that the Three Tigers had a special relationship with Sifu Cheung that Carter never had. Carter is still very annoying and very insulting. He tells Hing: “You look like a fat Asian Mr. Rogers.” In his middle-age, Carter tries to come across as a kung fu master, with a lot of appropriation of Chinese culture.
During the funeral services, three obnoxious men in their late teens/early 20s go up to a large photo on display of Sifu Cheung. The three guys pose together in front of the photo and disrespectfully start taking selfies with their phones. Carter tells Danny and Hing to do something about this rudeness toward their former mentor, but Danny and Hing refuse, because they don’t want to cause any further trouble.
After this tacky selfie photo session, the three guys immediately leave the funeral service. Who are these jerks? They will be seen again later on in the movie because they will be part of one of the big kung fu showdowns in the story. This trio of thugs is led by arrogant Chief (played by Phillip Dang), whose sidekicks are Boi (played by Brian Le) and Fu (played by Andy Le). These goons might or might not have clues about Sifu Cheung’s real cause of death.
Hing is the first to express skepticism that Sifu Cheung did not die of natural causes. The official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia. Hing doubts that Sifu Cheung, who was reportedly in great health, could have died this way. Danny, who works in insurance claims, says that it’s possible, since Sifu Cheung smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Hing wants to investigate and Danny reluctantly goes along at first.
In order to gather information, Hing and Danny end up seeing Jim again. He works in a gym as a trainer to mixed-martial arts fighters. And unlike Danny and Hing, muscular Jim is in top athletic shape. The trio’s reunion starts out as awkward but eventually, they all agree that Sifu Cheung’s death is worth investigating. It’s also their way of honoring their former mentor because they feel guilty of never resolving their differences with Sifu Cheung before he died.
Some of the people whom Danny, Hing and Jim encounter during their amateur sleuthing are Sifu Wong (played by Raymond Ma), who was a longtime close friend of Sifu Cheung; Ray (played by La’Tevin Alexander), one of Jim’s MMA fighter trainees; and Zhen Fan (played by Ken Quitugua), who kung fu fighter in his 30s who is said to have been one of the last people mentored by Sifu Cheung. Carter tries to insert himself into the investigation, and he might or might not be helpful
“The Paper Tigers” gets a lot of mileage out of poking fun at how out-of-shape Danny and Hing are when they do their inevitable kung fu fights. Hing also has a bad right knee. Jim is in great shape, but his hindrance is that he hasn’t done kung fu in years, so there are moments when he forgets what to do in kung fu and resorts to MMA techniques. And all three man aren’t as nimble and fast as they used to be.
The fight scenes are well-done and often comical. Quitugua was also the action director/fight choreographer in “Paper Tigers.” And his fight scenes in the movie (not surprisingly) stand out the most. Even though some of the fights veer into slapstick comedy territory, the injuries are not glossed over too much. There’s a point in the movie when one of the Three Tigers can’t do any more fighting because he’s too injured.
All of the actors do a fine job with their roles. But because Danny has the most character development and backstory of his adult life, Uy’s portrayal of Danny is the most memorable. Ron Yuan and Jenkins also do quite well in their roles, especially in their comical banter. Bao provides solid direction, and he has a keen sense of knowing how to bring humor to intense fight scenes.
Where the movie’s screenplay falls short is in its lack of well-rounded female characters. Caryn is really the only woman who has a significant speaking role in the movie. And frankly, her character is portrayed as disapproving and bitter. “The Paper Tigers” isn’t a misogynistic film, but it could have done a lot better in presenting a variety of female characters instead of this unrealistic bubble where more than 90% of the people who exist and get to speak are male.
Of course, the Three Tigers’ return to kung fu fighting is about more than reliving their youth. It’s about confronting their past and coming to terms with who they’ve become as adults. Solving the mystery of Sifu Cheung’s death is a part of that journey. But, in its own way, “The Paper Tigers” is a coming-of-age in middle-age story. It’s about facing fear—not fear of what other people can do to you but the fear of not living up to your potential.
Well Go USA released “The Paper Tigers” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021.