By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Local filmmaker, writer, and director, Tran Quoc Bao, has been working hard with his team to bring their hometown tribute to kung fu and kung fu movies, “The Paper Tigers,” to the big screen. The journey has been rocky yet ultimately successful. Even with the hardships of COVID-19, the lock-down, and the adjustments both have required, “The Paper Tigers” has now premiered for audiences in the US and abroad.
The first thing the Weekly asked Tran was, did Seattle come forward? The answer was a resounding, “Yes.”
Shot right here in the streets of Seattle, “The Paper Tigers” relied upon local support to ease the way.
“The pleasant surprise was the International District showing up for us,” Tran said. Many residents and business staff probably saw the actors and production team filming around the area. “I think we were quite a sight!” According to Tran, locals came forward with food and items that were needed, such as kung fu supplies. Tran gave specific shout-outs to the Nisei Veterans Committee, Tai Tung and the Dynasty Room restaurants, Wing Luke Museum, Mak Fai Washington Kung Fu Club, and Weekly publisher Assunta Ng, who brought snacks. “We couldn’t say no to snacks!”
“It was wonderful to have the community engaged and supporting us,” Tran shared. This support was no doubt very welcome when the team ran into delays due to COVID and personal tragedy. “COVID definitely hit home for us.” A producer’s parent-in-law succumbed to COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, in March. Most recently, the first assistant director, John Nolan, contracted COVID while working on a different production, and passed away. “This was real and this was something to be respected,” said Tran somberly.
Tran and the team made sure they took all necessary precautions. Due to the lockdown, some editing and post-production was done entirely in a remote location, including the completion of music and special effects.
“We shot the film last summer, 2019, and then we were in post-production for about nine months, from September until August 2020,” at which point, they managed to deliver the film “right under the wire” to its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
The pandemic has necessitated that the film’s first views by the public have been virtual for the most part. After its premiere in August 2020, “The Paper Tigers” began navigating the festival circuit in October, starting with Los Angeles and New York. One in-person festival at Busan, Korea is coming up, along with events in Boston, Philadelphia, and Hawaii. Tran himself, and his associates, have been “attending” the festivals remotely, and conducting related interviews from afar.
“It’s kind of the new normal—well, I hope it’s not the new normal—the temporary normal.” Due to the regional restrictions usually in place at film festivals, “The Paper Tigers” has not yet gone nationwide but there some events that will enable viewers in the Pacific Northwest to purchase virtual tickets to watch the film.
This fall, the crew received the exciting news that the film had been picked up for general release.
“We are humbled and proud to announce that ‘The Paper Tigers’ has been acquired for North American distribution by Well Go USA, which means we will have a USA/Canada theatrical release in Spring 2021!” the team said. “Well Go is most known for releasing the IP Man franchise and Train to Busan, so this is an exciting fit.”
Like many of the other hurdles Tran and his associates faced, the journey to find a distributor in the United States was not smooth. The film made headlines when certain interested parties had racially-motivated suggestions for the movie, as Tran explained.
“Along the way, we had a lot of interest from Hollywood studios, but they were having challenges with wanting to fund the production as is. They wanted to change up a few things, especially with the cast, to have more white characters, or more white leads, for marketability. But it was something we felt that was integral to our story and to our vision and we stuck to our guns in wanting to cast the right and appropriate actors for our characters.”
The movie features two Asian Americans and one Black character as the three protagonists that we follow from childhood to adulthood, when, now living regular middle-aged lives, and without having trained diligently in some years, they are called to avenge their kung fu master. The film’s promotional website describes “The Paper Tigers” humorously as an underdog “indie feature film about three guys who are one kick away from pulling their hamstrings.”
“We want to tell a fun story of coming together,” Tran explained. “We’ve all gone through this experience of drifting away from friends, or things that we used to love, hobbies and passions, just reigniting those flames and passions that we had. It’s a homecoming, but an understanding that the values we once really believed in, we maybe grew up and out of, but they are still important lessons to hold onto and pass on.”
Tran hopes “The Paper Tigers” will continue the momentum in the United States for movies with Asian and Asian American stories and characters that started with “Crazy Rich Asians” and which, while it seems to be advancing in a positive way, could stall at any time—and has stalled before.
“I feel like we’re at an inflection point,” Tran said. “Usually, we have these moments where we feel like something could be moving, but oftentimes something doesn’t come out of it.” Tran referenced “The Joy Luck Club,” which had seemed promising, yet nothing really materialized, at that time, in terms of better representation on a consistent basis. “We want to keep building the momentum, to keep supporting each other… so it’s not just a one-off.”
To learn about the film’s progress or how to view the film, visit thepapertigersmovie.com. A GoFundMe page has also been set up to support the family of first assistant director John Nolan.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.