Directed by: Quoc Bao Tran. Starring: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins. Runtime: 1h 48 min. Released: This film had its World Premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on August 30, 2020.
Middle age is a funny thing, something that writer/director Quoc Bao Tran understands well as it’s the main crux of his film The Paper Tigers. His main characters are former martial arts gurus who trained under the revered Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). 30 years removed from their glory days, the Three Tigers of Sifu Cheng – Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) – are brought together by Cheung’s death, which they start to investigate.
The Tigers search different leads looking for the killer, as every bit of information they’re offered, they have to fight against people to get. This gives the film a narrative structure that feels akin to a video game as they fight group after group trying to try to avenge their Sifu, and there are a bunch of clichés here that make The Paper Tigers feel thin in story.
However, I enjoyed this film because of its heart and the characters. Danny used to be this undefeated prodigy and was the best fighter in the trio, but now he’s a middle-aged divorcee who has lost his will to fight. Hing now has a busted knee after falling off a scaffolding. Honour is a big part about this film and Hing arguably has the most honour amongst the group, holding them together. Jim is the one who stayed athletic, as he runs a judo gym (or something along those lines). Tension from the past between Jim and Danny feels cliched, but there’s such a great chemistry between these three actors. It makes them believably feel like brothers and this connection and their individual performances are what makes this film so engaging.
Each character is well thought-out as Danny receives the most attention. There’s a sub-plot with his son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy) as Danny tries to teach him about honour and values, as well as gung fu. These scenes are strong. There is one scene where Danny tries to teach him about sticking up for his friends and it parallels with the rest of the story; and the scene goes on too long. This is the most awkward part of the script in terms of pacing as writer and director Bao Tran buries the lead, showing us a more engaging development elsewhere and he sticks with the conversation with the kid that feels mundane in comparison.
This aspect of legacy is heartwarming, as he passes something he loves down to his son. That’s partly why Danny gets the most focus in characterization, because he’s the only character here with a child, and otherwise Hing and Jim are characterized with their relationship within the Tigers group, and that’s good enough. I appreciated the realism in this film, too, that each middle-aged guy fights like their age and they don’t automatically revert to their glory days. That’s most refreshing with Hing’s knee problem. They know they’re old and they lose (a lot), and that’s a welcome authenticity to these characters.
I’m making this film sound like a drama but it’s primarily a comedy, and it’s really funny at times. It’s funniest when the trio reunite with Danny’s old rival, Carter (Matthew Page). Carter and Danny would fight all the time when they were younger and now Carter has had a diet of steroids and Danny’s lost all his muscle. The banter between Carter and the group is amusing as they trade disses. One of the best aspect of this dynamic is that Carter is a white man who’s now a Sifu and spews Chinese knowledge. When Carter says that “we Chinese have a saying,” Danny responds by saying, “A fortune cookie made with white flour.” The comedy feels a bit mediocre when it tries too hard, and that again lies with Carter who comes across as awkward when he tries really hard.
There’s also comedy within the fights, especially when the Tigers face off against a trio of “gung fu orphans,” three twenty-something goons who don’t have a master. The fights feature some strong choreography, and since the Tigers are no longer traditionally trained, there’s less predictability in these fights when it comes to the choreography. Some of the fights are memorable and others, not so much, but they’re always solid. Either way, The Paper Tigers has a big enough heart and engaging characters to make it entertaining for its runtime.