The Paper Tigers is a 2021 martial arts dramedy about three men who were once the pupils of a kung fu (or gung fu, as a character notes in this film is the correct pronunciation) master, now middle-aged adults who reunite after years of no contact when their beloved former teacher dies under mysterious circumstances. I’ve also seen the film billed elsewhere as a comedy, and while it’s certainly a charming film, the USA Today pull quote on the poster that says the film is “filled with laughs” is a little overblown. It’s more of a feel-food, leaves-you-with-a-smile movie than a laugh riot, but the world needs both. And if you’re looking for something that won’t offend the sensibilities of the family that you’ll be spending time with over the holidays, this is a pretty good choice.
The film opens in 1986 with the training of young Danny, Hing, and Jim (Kieran Tamondong, Bryan Kinder, and Malakai James, respectively) by their teacher, Cheung (Roger Yuan). Their learning is unconventional, with shades of Karate Kid, but even more unusual; it wouldn’t have been too out of place to have Mr. Miyagi teach Daniel body control and perseverance by having him balance on a paint can, but he wouldn’t have done it while smoking cigarettes that he ashed directly into the trash can and looking at racing results in the newspaper. In an expertly edited piece of VHS-styled home videography, the boys age into high school by 1991 (now played, respectively, by Yoshi Sudarso, Peter Adrian Sudarso, and Gui DaSilva-Greene), where they have become undisputed masters of their craft, effortlessly fending off challenges from Carter (Mark Poletti), a student of a rival gung fu school. Finally, the three young men graduate from Cheung’s training, fully becoming “Tigers,” as Danny prepares to go and fight in Japan after their graduation in 1993.
In the present day, Danny (Alain Uy) is struggling to juggle part-time custody of his son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy) with his ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park) with his job, which leads to an ultimatum when he’s late for pickup, again, and he has to go back to the office instead of taking Ed to similar-to-but-legally-distinct-from Disneyland (the child’s favorite ride is “Mountain Splash”), resulting in him asking Ed to lie to his mother about their activities. Danny is visited by Hing (Ron Yuan), who tells him that Cheung has died, seemingly of a heart attack, but something about it all seems fishy. At their deceased mentor’s funeral, they reunite with Carter (Matthew Page), who has gone into full cultural appropriation mode, and his own teacher Wong (Raymond Ma), who owns the restaurant at which Cheung had been employed as a chef for decades and runs his own gung fu school. Carter also confesses a belief that Cheung was murdered, and points to three young “punks” who interrupt the ceremony and disrespect Cheung’s memory as possible persons of interest. Hing and Danny reunite with Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) to get to the bottom of their mentor’s murder, and in the process learn that he may have trained a fourth Tiger (Ken Quitugua) after his surrogate sons abandoned him.
The action here is nothing short of spectacular. It’s always a treat to see martial arts depicted with an emphasis on the arts over the martial, and this is a truly elegant film to behold. This isn’t really all that surprising, really, given the talent behind and in front of the camera; for over half of the cast, clicking through to their IMDb profiles reveals a host of stunt credits alongside their acting performances and that many of them come from stunt families—Roger Yuan (54 acting credits, 38 stunt credits) is the older brother of Ron Yuan (actor 169, stunts 36), and Yoshi Sudarso (actor 51, stunts 43) is the elder of two brothers as well, with Peter Adrian Sudarso alongside him in this film. The three actors playing the disrespectful punks (Brian Le, Phillip Dang, and Andy Le) have 34 acting credits between them, and 32 stunt credits. This is a truly stacked cast, and they are fantastic to watch. While several of the more obvious jokey bits didn’t work for me—in the opening training sequence of the guys as children, Cheung has them hold a squatting pose until one of them farts, and I almost opted out immediately—the action provides plenty of opportunity for physical comedy as well, which is well used.
The comic elements are more grounded in character than we’re accustomed to in modern comedies as well. Unlike other movies that pastiche and homage martial arts films (The FP comes to mind), Paper Tigers doesn’t rely on old stereotypes and tiresome cliches to create a rhetorical space for joke-telling, and the comedy that does recall those dead horses is punching (and kicking, and breaking bricks) up, not down. In the nineties, Carter was a joke to the Tigers because he kept challenging the far-superior Danny to fights, even after eight spectacular losses (in the ninth encounter, Danny doesn’t even bother to take his jacket off); in the present, Carter has, as noted above, gone into full appropriation mode, and the joke’s on him as a result, even going so far as to have him say things like “We Chinese have a saying” in front of several Asian Americans. Later, one of the punks uses a slur as part of a larger appropriation of AAVE, and his ass gets rightfully, and hilariously, beaten for it. (In a non-comedic example, there’s a use of the f-slur by Ed, but it’s in the context of explaining to his parents how he got into a fight with another boy at school as the result of defending a friend against a slurring bully, and it’s one of the things that reminds Danny why he learned gung fu in the first place, setting up the film’s climax.)
My other concern that arose in the first few minutes was that we were also immediately treated to a scene of Danny as a subpar parent, and I was worried we would eventually veer into territory of the overly sentimental. There are few storytelling devices of which I tired as quickly as a child than the “Workaholic Dad” who appeared in so many of the family films of the 90s, virtually always using a mobile phone of a now incredible size, who ultimately comes through for his child/ren in the end (The 6th Day, Jack Frost, Liar Liar, Little Giants, and especially and egregiously Hook) while treacly music plays. This family dynamic ends up being a smaller and quieter part of this film while having a genuine impact on the story eventually. This is, after all, a film about legacy and fatherhood. In fact, the Tigers don’t call their teacher “sensei” or “master,” but “sifu,” which means “master,” yes, but also father. Their martial art isn’t merely a general kind of gung fu, but a lineage and genealogy of instruction and mastery. We learn that there was a reason that Danny and Sify Cheung first became estranged, and that this led Danny down a path to conflict avoidance that has left him rusty in his skills after all this time; it’s only when he finally admits to his son that asking him to lie was dishonorable and that fighting to protect others when there is no other choice is a valid stance to take that Danny once again feels the inner strength that made him so formidable in his youth, which allows him not to avenge his Sifu’s death, but to deliver justice. At an earlier point in the film, Danny and Hing ask Sifu Wong to maintain Sifu Cheung’s ashes at his dojo despite being of a different clan, as they believe he would prefer to be enshrined where gung fu is practiced, to which Wong replies that his ashes belong with his disciples; at the film’s conclusion, we see Danny in his garage training Ed in his master’s ways, including balancing on paint cans, and that he now has his Sifu’s ashes there. Danny is embracing and continuing that legacy, and it’s actually very sweet without hitting you over the head with its symbolism or becoming cloying and insufferable.
This is a debut feature from writer/director Quoc Bao Tran, and he’s made a spectacular first impression. Surprisingly for something with such sumptuous visuals and excellent transitional and fight editing, this is also cinematographer Shaun Mayor’s first feature with that particular credit, although he’s had extensive camera operation experience, as well as an editor, Kris Kristensen, whose prior work has been in shorts and documentaries (other than a 2004 film entitled Inheritance, which was also directed and written by Kristensen, leading me to believe this was probably a student film situation). Somehow, this turned out to be a dream team, and I’m excited to see what each of them does next.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond