By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
There may be debates as to how to keep the momentum going after the success of the Crazy Rich Asians movie. What is not up for debate is that to encourage equal representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (APIs) in Hollywood, the momentum must continue. The Paper Tigers, slated to shoot in 2019, intends to further propel the movement by representing the local and international API community in a tribute to kung fu and Seattle.
“There’s no other project like The Paper Tigers, especially in Seattle,” says one of the film’s producers, Al’n Duong. “We want to make our hometown proud, but we need their support.”
Making an independent film is not easy. Particularly if, rather than being a Hollywood formula, your film has heart and soul and represents a minority population. In 2018, The Paper Tigers’ team ran a Kickstarter campaign — one of the most successful film Kickstarters in Seattle history — for which the film’s creators are thankful.
“To me, Kickstarter was a public sign that we have people that are supporting and came out and showed up for it,” writer and director Bao Tran said. “That was the biggest inspiration.” The film’s proof of concept was also presented at Cannes Frontières Platform, demonstrating international appeal. Yet more is needed.
Why support The Paper Tigers?
First, it’s local and it’s API. Several members of the film’s team call Seattle home. Writer Tran, a child of Vietnamese immigrants, grew up in North Seattle and attended Seattle University. A lifelong love of film took Tran to Vietnam as part of a wave of API artists that, due to the cold shoulder in Hollywood, decide to go abroad to jump-start their careers.
While in Vietnam, Tran worked as an editor on two films of note. One, called Cho Lon, garnered attention due to being banned for controversial content, and the other, a film called Jackpot, was a Vietnam Oscar submission.
Along with Tran, other members of the film team have ties to Seattle, such as producers Duong and Daniel Gildark.
“It’s a way of a homecoming to grab people to be able to come back home and make the film,” says Tran. “There are a lot of nice ohana ties there.” Seattle is challenged by its location—between Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada, two movie towns. Why not create a thriving film industry here?
Tran said, “I think it comes from people here that make a commitment to want to show and portray this city and community. And it’s a different look. To be honest, our Chinatown is much better looking than LA’s. I’ll throw down the gauntlet on that. There’s a lot of footage. This region is gorgeous. We’ve got a lot of great hidden treasures here.”
Local industry veteran Yuji Okumoto, known for Karate Kid Part II, and owner of Seattle restaurant Kona Kitchen, has also joined The Paper Tigers as a producer. Says Tran, “[Okumoto] has probably more film experience than all of us combined…and he’s been such a…stabilizing presence in the team and also being able to be that face and the ambassador towards Asian American actors.” One of the unique things about The Paper Tigers is that the main characters are middle aged. Okumoto has helped with outreach towards actors in that age range. “He cares about the project,” continues Tran. “He cares about the portrayal of Asian men and the dearth of roles [for Asian Americans], so I think he sees the value.”
Which brings us to the second reason to support the film: the story. The Paper Tigers encompasses two things Seattleites love, kung fu and the underdog. The film approaches these topics in ways that are regional and individualistic, yet representative of the API community. The film honors the Asian kung fu tradition, and at the same time tells the story from an immigrant perspective, with “characters that don’t speak with accents,” says Tran. Plus, the film ups the ante: “I think a lot of times, we think of kung fu as a genre that is hokey,” explains Tran. “There’s a lot of cultural baggage with it. We see dubbing and all this low quality, low rent type of acting, but the physical abilities are without doubt. We wanted to…really put a spotlight on that, but also with a story and good acting and performances.”
The filmmakers are devotees of kung fu movies since their childhoods, and in no way mean to make light of them. The point is to develop a story with a local perspective, and put an extra human spin on it. What would it be like for three kung fu practitioners, living in Seattle, well into their middle age, with families and jobs, to find that they must avenge their slain kung fu master? And one of the three is Black, adding more insight into kung fu in the United States. Tran said, “Our idea was that kung fu is part of their lives, just like kids going to play baseball or whatnot, but their hobby happens to be kung fu, so that’s the situation we want to portray, and not just make an exotic thing out of it. It’s just part of their lives and it makes them who they are.”
The film and its creators aim to continue the discussion as to what it means to be an API. There is a lot of pressure when a film featuring a minority cast comes out to represent, to be the “end all be all,” to tell everyone’s story at once. Tran insists that while it is inevitable as an Asian American to tell a story from an Asian American perspective, each person should also be able to tell an individual story. And the Asian American experience is not the same as the Asian experience.
“When we start talking about a movement or how we can move the ball forward together, it releases the burden on a lot of us so that we’re not having to represent all things and all people,” Tran says. “We need to shift the narrative so it shows a different perspective.”
Some films come with hype and some come with heart. Both fuel a movement. Seattle has a chance this year to make a mark on API and minority representation in Hollywood. Initial filming of The Paper Tigers saw locals come out to offer funding, food, and production locations. There is more to come. Tran emphasizes that the role of the community in making a film such as this is huge.
“There’s so many things that go into it. So many moving parts. We need as much help as we can get.”
To learn more or support The Paper Tigers movie, visit thepapertigersmovie.com.
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.