‘The Paper Tigers’ is a must-watch for any kung fu fan
What are the hallmarks of a martial arts film? There’s the main character: usually a spunky young underdog who believes that he’s invincible. There’s the sifu (teacher), the zen master that guides him through his troubles. (More often than not, they’re teaching their pupils why violence is not the answer while teaching them powerful moves that can easily take down their opponents. Go figure.). There’s an underlying theme of honor that holds sacred the codes they abide by. And, if the success of films like The Karate Kid (or most recently, Netflix’s Cobra Kai) is to be believed, there’s always the inevitable white guy who takes the art form far more seriously than his Asian peers.
So for fans of the genre, director Quoc Bao Tran’s kung-fu comedy The Paper Tigers has all the recognizable tenets of a run-of-the-mill kung fu film. The main twist? This time around, the protagonists are three middle-aged men who are way past their prime.
After learning about the death of their beloved sifu, kung-fu-prodigy-turned-dad Danny (Alain Uy) reluctantly finds himself reuniting with his former kung fu peers Hing (Ron Yuan) and eventually Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins). No longer the young, peppy, kung fu kids that they once were, the three are now far removed from the martial arts scene. Danny is a businessman who is struggling to keep custody of his son after a divorce, Hing is living off of workman’s comp due to a workplace injury, and Jim teaches jiu-jitsu in his dojo. But suspicious circumstances surrounding their sifu’s death cause our protagonists to think that it was more than just a mere heart attack that killed their master. Together, the three set off on a journey to uncover the truth of what happened that night once and for all.
While the general plot itself doesn’t seem to suggest anything new to add to the subgenre, Tran’s decision to center the film around these older main characters adds a whole new take to the traditional kung fu canon. Now that they’re older and more experienced in life, our protagonists are mellower, warier, and more cautious about their capabilities. True, that doesn’t stop them from trying to attempt what they were capable of doing in their prime (Danny runs out of breath surprisingly fast), but more often than not their kung fu maneuvers end in failure. It’s frustrating for them–they know the motions and techniques, but their aging bodies can’t keep up with their minds. They aren’t “invincible” anymore. Instead, physical prowess is traded in for wisdom. When Danny, Hing, and Jim face off against three young kung fu hooligans, there’s an obvious contrast between the two groups that serve as a moment of reflection for our underdog heroes. This matchup holds more weight because the three main characters see themselves in the overly enthusiastic, reckless pupils–making the fight all the more personal to them. Unlike most, Tran dares to ask what happens to those kung fu protagonists long after the flashy competitions are over and they have to go back to reality. The Paper Tigers imagines one possible outcome.
But despite the older average age group of our protagonists, the action within The Paper Tigers has not been compromised at all. Choreographer Ken Quitugua’s fight scenes are dynamic, brutal, and absolutely exciting to watch. At certain points, you start to forget that you’re watching older men fight to the near-death… until Tran playfully reminds you of his characters’ limitations by having them take comedic fight breaks or getting completely knocked out after particularly hard falls. Perhaps the best example of this is how Tran and Quitugua choose to handle the fight scenes with Hing, who noticeably has a bum leg. Together with the way that Yuan brings the character to life, Hing’s fight scenes are the most creative of the group’s and arguably the most fun to watch. The standout fight in the entire film is Hing with a spear facing off against Carter (Matthew Page), (the aforementioned white guy who takes kung fu too seriously)… in a film that already boasts top-notch kung fu fights from the rest of its cast. All of these factors make The Paper Tigers a must-watch for any kung fu fan or fight choreographer.
Further cemented by overarching themes of honor, family, and respect, The Paper Tigers is a fun romp with a heartwarming story to boot. Reveling in characters with snazzy quick wits and even versatile physical comedy, the film not only serves as a great action film but a great comedy as well. It’s a blessing that Tran decided to reject the marketing mores of Hollywood by casting more Asian characters and follow his own gut instincts instead. The Paper Tigers faithfully pays tribute to the confines of the genre itself, while making for an invigorating popcorn flick that the entire family will be sure to enjoy.
Rating: 4 / 5
The Paper Tigers premiered at the 2020 Fantasia Fest on August 30, 2020.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!