By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s not often that a movie successfully accomplishes multiple objectives, yet “The Paper Tigers,” our own Seattle-based and Seattle-born film, does just that. The love child of writer, director, and editor Bao Tran, and his friends and colleagues, many of whom have ties to the Emerald City, “The Paper Tigers” is a tribute to the place where Bao grew up and a tribute to martial arts. It’s a comedy that at the same time drives home important gung fu values of honor and integrity.
Many cities provide the backdrop to movies, yet if it’s not an internationally familiar location, such as London or Paris, it’s often difficult to distinguish one place from another—and in fact, filmmakers often endeavor to obscure the exact place their films are made, changing names of buildings and never revealing any distinguishing details. Not so “The Paper Tigers.” Local viewers will enjoy the many recognizable shots of Seattle that pop up throughout the film, and it will give non-locals a view of our city that they will not have seen in any other movie. The film starts off with a shot of one of the dragons in the International District, behind which can be seen the Smith Tower. These kinds of intentional framings are a great part of what makes The Paper Tigers so remarkable —and are deliberate, and affectionate, efforts to locate us geographically.
“Three childhood kung fu prodigies have grown into washed-up, middle-aged men—now one kick away from pulling their hamstrings. But when their master is murdered, they must juggle their dead-end jobs, dad duties, and overcome old grudges to avenge his death,” reads the film’s description. Underlying the film is the sense of kung fu-based morals that the friends, to varying degrees, have let slip a little bit over the years. Once the only students of Shifu Cheung, they drifted away from their master and each other. When Shifu Cheung dies, the three have an opportunity to heal misunderstandings and wash away the shame they carry from having abandoned their art, their teacher, and each other. This aspect of the movie is heavy, yet it’s handled in such a way—interspersed with humor and action, as well as the mystery of Shifu Cheung’s death—that we absorb the deeper lessons while enjoying the fun aspects of the film.
Alain Uy, who plays “Danny Eight Hands,” the acknowledged leader of the group, said, “My favorite…were all the scenes I had with the Tigers—Mykel (Shannon Jenkins) and Ron (Yuan)…We have such a great bond that it was delightful to be on set every day. It never felt like work.”
Uy, Jenkins, and Yuan are the actors who formed the “three tigers” in the film. The rapport that not just the three, but all the actors have, is obvious throughout the film, and most entertaining during the fight scenes and whenever any of them cracks a joke. Since none of the “three” have trained in quite some time, their skills are rusty, to say the least. Action director Ken Quitugua—who “studied everything from MMA and boxing KO compilations…to classic Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers films” while setting up each fight—does a terrific job of demonstrating the guys’ lack of practice while incorporating a bit of “once you learn how to ride a bike, it never really goes away” into the action, as the “three” slowly regain their instincts.
Along the way, their fumbles are a source of humor, even as they face serious consequences if they mess up too badly against a better honed opponent. The humor, combined with the recognizable landscape, has a uniquely Pacific Northwest feel. The guys are casually sarcastic.
There is a running joke, for instance, about one of the “tigers” old adversaries, a white boy named Carter, played by Matthew Page, that the three, especially Danny, regularly throttled growing up. Carter now has his own dojo and is stupendously and unabashedly awkward as he quotes Chinese proverbs to the “tigers.” Every time, the “tigers” beg him to just hurry up and say it in English. Yet as silly as his role might be—reminiscent of the comical white characters we often find in martial arts movies—Carter also believes in what kung fu stands for; and while all of them relish the chance for a re-match, they work together to avenge Shifu Cheung’s death.
“I was really spoiled with the scene where I got to fight all three of the main characters,” Page told the Northwest Asian Weekly. “It had everything I could’ve wanted. The script was so good and then the action team did a great job with the choreography. It was a perfect blend of comedy and fighting. Pretty much my favorite scene that I’ve done in any movie I’ve worked on so far.” This chance that the movie offered, for these actors to play roles that they could enjoy was another charming element of the entire project. Yuan, who plays Hing, and acts as a bridge between Danny and the third “tiger,” Jim, said, “I missed playing comedy parts, so I loved the opportunity to explore those layers again…I did a lot in the beginning of my career, as well as stand up and improv from the times I was 17 to 18 years old back in NYC. Years later, I wanted to focus on more dramatic roles…so peeps don’t even know I can do comedy.”
It’s clear that “The Paper Tigers” is an act of love by its creators. A tribute to the martial arts movies they watched growing up, and to the place they grew up. During filming, the crew was often seen on Seattle’s streets and the community came forward to give back.
“Gratitude is the greatest reward,” Tran shared. “I was struck by so many moments throughout where the community showed up for us, whether it was Hood Famous bringing the crew snacks or Nisei Vets Hall lending us rehearsal space. Or even seeing our diverse cast and crew truly enjoy each other’s company during lunch. We knew we were working on something special and it inspired us to do our best.” This family feeling imbues local viewers, too, as we are treated to familiar sights, humor, and thrilling action as the “three tigers” fight to regain their sense of self.
“The most rewarding thing for me was being a part of what I think will be an iconic film,” said Jenkins, who plays Jim. “This film has a real opportunity to impact communities of all backgrounds because the story is about love, honor, respect, and perseverance, not to mention the good guys win. I’ve been in this business for over 30 years and I couldn’t be prouder of a film.”
“The Paper Tigers” screens at the 2021 Seattle Asian American Film Festival on March 6 in Burien. It is currently sold out. For more information about film festivals and the U.S. release of the film, visit pov-films.com/thepapertigers/#home.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.