The Paper Tigers (2021)

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

Kung Fu Zombie (1981)

As bottomless as my hunger for low-grade genre trash can be in general, I do have a limited appetite for particular cheap-o subgenres that I never developed a proper palate for. One of my most glaring shortcomings as a B-movie enthusiast is a dulled, limited appreciation for the martial arts film. I’m not talking about artily psychedelic wuxia epics or the 1980s heyday of Hong Kong visionaries like John Woo. I mean the real cheap stuff, the kind of public domain outliers that pad out local broadcast television schedules. While I grew up watching tons of sci-fi & horror schlock on TV, I don’t remember martial arts cheapies ever being part of that diet. As a result, I have a hard time brushing off my annoyances with the genre’s worst idiosyncrasies—mainly the inert sense of pacing and the repetitive fight choreography sound effects from its near-universally shoddy English dubs—things I’d likely find more charming had I been indoctrinated with this stuff at an earlier age.

In an effort to meet martial arts schlock halfway as a latecomer to genre, I’ve been seeking out fringe titles where it overlaps with the horror tropes I’m more accustomed to. The “boutique” bargain bin Blu-ray label Gold Ninja Video has been an excellent resource in this endeavor, releasing such horror-tinged martial arts titles as the post-modern Brucesploitation castoff The Dragon Lives Again and the delightfully amateurish wuxia nightmare Wolf Devil Woman in the past year, both of which I enjoyed immensely. While I wasn’t quite as enamored with their recent selection Kung-Fu Zombie as those other two titles, it did help further drag me into an appreciation for horror-themed martial arts schlock in a couple key ways. Firstly, it includes an excellent video essay from critic (and label-runner) Justin Decloux titled “Punch a Ghost: A Beginner’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror” that highlighted the charm & historical context of the subgenre (along with a 90-minute “Hong Kong Horror Trailer Reel” packed with recommendations for what to watch next). More importantly, Kung-Fu Zombie itself was one of the quickest-paced films I have ever seen in any genre, which sidestepped one of my usual sticking points with martial arts schlock in particular.

Kung Fu Zombie is a public domain Taiwanese martial arts horror cheapie that’s very light on spooks & gore but plentiful in broad comedy & breakneck fight choreography. It mostly concerns a father-son duo who’re haunted by criminal nemeses from their past. The son’s petty dispute is with a thief whose robbery he interrupted, landing the scoundrel in jail. Once released, the thief hires a Taoist priest to reanimate a small militia of corpses to attack his foil as retribution, fearing the young hero’s superior fighting skills in one-on-one combat. Through a series of mishaps, the thief & the priest manage to resurrect a vicious murderer with a heartless vendetta against the hero’s father (and martial arts trainer) as well, a much more formidable foe our hero has unknowingly been training to defeat his entire life. The title is something of a misnomer. This really isn’t a Romero-style zombie invasion picture with fight choreography interludes as much as it is a full-on martial arts picture that happens to feature a grab bag of generically Spooky archetypes: a couple zombies, a ghost, occultist rituals, etc. It’s all played more for broad humor than genuine horror atmosphere, which is fine, except that the jokes aren’t especially funny (and often backslide into juvenile sexual assault humor at women’s expense).

While the horror elements of this genre-hybrid cheapie didn’t deliver anything especially memorable, the kung-fu sequences are plentiful and plenty entertaining on their own. The movie is insanely shrewd in its editing – speeding up & trimming down everything surrounding those fights until all that’s left is a lean 78-minute whirlwind. Kung-Fu Zombie isn’t nearly as funny nor as innovative as the Peter Jackson classic, but the way it delivers broad jokes & a wide range of classic spooks at a breakneck pace makes it feel like the martial arts equivalent of Dead Alive. I won’t say that it was a mind-blowing revelation that cracked open the martial arts genre for me as an outsider or anything, but its rapid-fire looniness made for an amusing enough novelty, one I likely should have enjoyed with friends & beers instead of alone on the couch as a midnight snack. I plan to continue seeking out these cheap-o titles where horror & martial arts schlock overlap just to expand my appreciation of everything low-end genre filmmaking has to offer. Even if this particular film didn’t fully hit the spot, its Gold Ninja Video release gifted me with dozens of other titles in its same vicinity that look even more promising. It’s more of a breezy genre primer than it is its genre’s artistic pinnacle.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy World (2020)

I’ve finally had my first Wakaliwood experience, thanks to the pandemic-inspired We Are One: A Global Film Festival charity event that ran for free on YouTube earlier this month. The D.I.Y. African movie studio has been operated out of the home of self-taught filmmaker Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana (self-credited as Nabwana IGG) for a full decade now. It seems to be little more than a few laptops & cameras in the hands of amateur action-movie buffs in Kampala, Uganda, but its acclaim in Midnight Movie circles has been emphatically spreading for years now. Where most outsider-art cult movies of recent years have earned their notoriety through so-bad-it’s-good mockery from tragically insincere Film Bros (think Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen or whoever’s responsible for the Birdemic Cinematic Universe), Wakaliwood pictures sidestep that pitfall entirely by having fun with the audience, allowing little room for anyone to mock them from a distance. There’s no way these micro-budget action thrillers could compete with the over-the-top spectacles of Hollywood franchises like Mission: Impossible or The Fast and the Furious, at least not in terms of resources or scale. Instead, they aim for a deliberate action-comedy bent, verbally acknowledging their quality as a bootleg version of Hollywood action franchises and inviting the audience to laugh along with them instead of mocking them from afar. When Tommy Wiseau was let in on The Joke, his schtick was ruined, and he hasn’t done anything genuinely interesting since The Room. By contrast, Wakaliwood was already having fun with their outsider-art oddities before a worldwide audience arrived to the party, so all anyone could do was join in the fun. I’m grateful that We Are One finally sent along my invite (courtesy of the Midnight Madness programmers at TIFF).

A lot of Wakaliwood’s unique it’s-all-a-party vibe is due to its in-house hype-man narrator, Emmie. Emmie is billed as the films’ VJ (“Video Joker”), a master of ceremonies who excitedly talks over the movies to explain their onscreen action (as if he were Silent Era title cards) and to keep the audience’s blood pumping. It’s as if the films had built in their own MST3k commentary team, except will all the show’s above-it-all Gen-X snark replaced with unembarrassed movie-nerd joy. Sometimes, the VJ interjects to establish characters’ motivations or to remind the audience who’s fighting on which side. More often, he’s just shouting energizing catchphrases like an exercise class instructor, keeping our heartrate up with gloriously redundant outbursts of “Supa!”, “Commando!”, and “Movie, movie, movie!” Nabwana IGG’s hyperactive editing style is similarly geared towards keeping the mood light & the audience constantly wired, cutting out all breathing room between cuts so all that’s onscreen is action & jokes alternating in dizzingly rapid succession. Curiously, the characters themselves seem to be aware of this constant need to push onto the next action sequence, as if they are aware they’re in a movie. When a husband is about to find his wife in bed with another man or an evil gang is about to clash with the film’s heroes, there’s usually an excited observer on hand to comment about how good of a movie we’re about to see, sometimes doing the VJ’s job for him before he gets to weigh in. It all plays into the communal, regional filmmaking vibe Nabwana IGG establishes with his hyperlocal Ugandan crew and his exponentially international audience at home. Everyone’s on the same footing, whether narrator, actor, or outside observer; we’re all invited to party.

In Crazy World, a Ugandan gang of kidnappers are thwarted by the unexpected Kung Fu skills of their pint-sized captives & the children’s enraged parents. In the 80s & 90s action movies Nabwana IGG is emulating (Commando, Cobra, Hard Target, etc.), the crooked network of child abductors would normally be taken down by a lone ex-military musclehead who is mysteriously unable to be struck by the bullets fired by dozens of enemies. Nabwana IGG opens up the playing field to allow as many of his local community actors to have their heroic Schwarzenegger moment as possible: returning characters from past Wakaliwood classics, a new crop of ”Kung Fu”-trained neighborhood children called The Waka Starz, and a random assortment of revenge-seeking parental figures who just want their kids back. The most notable of which is a once-reputable local man who becomes communally ignored as a homeless lunatic once his son is abducted by the evil gang. As the Video Joker solemnly explains, “He lost his child, then he lost his mind.” The title of the film is borrowed from the homeless man’s self-built shanty town, a reconstructed pile of trash from where he observes the comings & goings of the wicked kidnapping gang until he finds the right time to strike, using societal dismissal of mentally ill vagrants to hide in plain sight. None of this matters too much once the gang is actively overthrown by the community they terrorize, though, as he’s only one hero of many. It seems Nabwana IGG & his VJ mouthpiece especially want the Waka Starz to steal some of the homeless vigilante’s spotlight, repeatedly asserting that Crazy World is “The Greatest Kidz Movie Eva” despite the fact that it’s drenched in gunfire & bloodshed. The kids are adorably tough in their own moments of collective heroism, though, which really accentuates the movie’s charms as a document of hyperlocal communal filmmaking.

I can’t speak to how Crazy World compares to other films in the Wakaliwood canon, but it worked exceedingly well as an introduction to Nabwana IGG’s output for me. That often came across as a deliberate intention of the piece, as the movie periodically stops dead to promote the trailers for past & future Wakaliwood productions the audience should get hyped for. It worked too, as I was jotting down titles like Bad Black & Who Killed Captain Alex? as necessary homework assignments I needed to catch up with. Unfortunately, a documentary titled Once Upon a Time in Uganda was supposed to premiere at this year’s SXSW fest to help further spread the good word of Wakaliwood’s output but was preempted by our current COVID-19 pandemic. In what had to be my favorite aspect of Crazy World’s presentation on the We Are One platform, Nabwana IGG directly acknowledges that bizarre circumstance, interrupting the film’s action to deploy “anti-piracy enforcers” to online bootleggers’ homes across the globe via CG helicopters to apprehend them for stealing his movie. There is no shyness around self-promotion or copyright protection here. Characters will directly ask bootleggers onscreen “Do you know how hard it is to make a movie?” as a plea for compassion (as well as a for-its-own-sake comedic gag). It is damn hard to make a movie, something that makes Nabwana IGG’s growing media empire look even more enticing as a newcomer who’s far behind the curve. He has so many titles under his name, yet so few resources behind their production or distribution. In that way, he’s a true D.I.Y. filmmaking success story, and I’m incredibly excited to have finally stumbled into his crazy world.

-Brandon Ledet

Bulletproof Monk (2003)

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There’s a delicate balance at work in Bulletproof Monk (which easily could also have been titled Tibetan Punk! or Monks & Punks) that a lot of lesser films fail to achieve. Judging solely by the basic monks & punks premise and the cheesy early 00s imagery, it’s by all means a bad movie. At the same time, however, it resists nearly all negative criticism by being such a delightfully goofy bad movie that’s very much self-aware in its vapid silliness. In a lot of ways the film sells itself as a action-comedy cash-in on the cultural & financial success of martial arts choreography-fests The Matrix & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it also has its own charms as a unique intellectual property, which are mostly dependent on the natural charisma of its costars Yun-Fat Chow (as the monk) and Seann William Scott (as the punk, naturally).

The story begins in a Tibetan monastery where an elderly monk plays right into the classic one-day-from-retirement trope and is brutally murdered in a hailstorm of bullets. What kind of a bastard would murder a kind, old monk, you ask? Why, a Nazi bastard, of course. In addition to the film’s already preposterous buddy dynamic of a Tibetan punk and a New York City punk, Bulletproof Monk also makes room for aging, power-hungry Nazis, a shirtless British rapper named Mr. Funktastic, and the red-hot daughter of a Russian crime lord. It’s a quite silly hodgepodge of mismatched characters, but they have more in common than you’d expect. For instance, both aging Nazis & shirtless British rappers enjoy hanging out in underground smokeshow lairs that split the aesthetic difference between steampunk & Hot Topic. Also, New York City pickpockets who inexplicable live in millionaires’ apartments above adorable single screen cinemas and pious Tibetan monks both share a deep passion for Crouching Tiger-type martial arts & Matrix-era bullet time, which the former learned from the movie theater and the latter from his lifetime dedication to protecting an ancient scroll that’s incredibly important for some reason or another.

The critical consensus at the time of Bulletproof Monk’s release was that it was a disappointing comedy saved from being a total wash solely by the virtues of Chow Yun-Fat’s martial arts skills. I’m not sure if its campy charms have just improved with time or if I’m just more able than most to excuse a movie’s faults sheerly for the purity of its goofy attitude, but it’s hard for me to fault a movie that features Chow Yun-Fat performing gymnastics on a mid-flight helicopter’s landing gear or the line “Lucky for you this crumpet’s come begging for some of my funktastic love.” Seann William Scott is also surprisingly convincing as a no-good punk with a heart of gold and there are some genuinely striking images of him learning/practicing kung fu in front of a movie screen. Bulletproof Monk may have been a disappointing development for Chow Yun-Fat’s fans after the heights of his John Woo collaborations & career-defining performance in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, but for a fan of goofy buddy comedies, bizarre cultural relics, and Nazi war criminals getting their due, it’s quite a treat & surprisingly just as impervious to criticism as it is to bullets.

-Brandon Ledet