Quoc Bao Tran’s dramedy about aging gung fu students’ quest to avenge their murdered sifu is funny, thoughtful, and boasts excellent fights.
The Paper Tigers is out on blu-ray today. It’s one of this year’s very best films. And speaking personally, it’s my favorite of 2021 so far.
In the 1990s Danny, Hing, and Jim were young, they were inseparable, and they were unstoppable. Under the tutelage of gung fu master Sifu Cheng (Roger Yuan, Black Dynamite) they were the Three Tigers – the young guns in Seattle’s martial arts scene. Danny in particular was set to become one of the undisputed masters of the form, so blindingly fast in his matches that he was dubbed “Danny 8 Hands” by Hing, Jim and everyone else in the scene. The future was the Tigers’ for the taking.
And then life happened.
Now, it’s the 2010s. The Tigers are well into middle age. They are estranged from each other, from gung fu, and from Sifu Cheng – all with varying degrees of bitterness. Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Undisputed III: Redemption) teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Hing, (Ron Yuan, Mulan) injured while working construction gets by on disability. And Danny (Alain Uy, Helstrom) sells insurance while flailing and failing as a co-parent to his son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy) – barely managing two hands, let alone eight.
When Hing learns that Sifu Cheng has died, he seeks out Danny. When the two of them learn that their master’s demise was suspicious, they seek out Jim. The Tigers, reunited, go on the prowl for answers. They’ll have to face a trio of obnoxious young martial arts influencers (Andy Le, Phillip Dang, and Brian Le – YouTube action-comedy team Martial Club), Carter (Matthew Page, Enter the Dojo) – their try-hard teen rival whose chip on his shoulder grew up with him.
At the end of the trail waits someone far more sinister: the ruthless assassin Zhen Fan (Ken Quitugua, also The Paper Tigers‘ action director).
In addition to their literal opponents, the Tigers will also have to face their metric ton of baggage. There’s the reasons their relationships with their Sifu collapsed. There’s the reasons why they, once brothers by love and learning, haven’t spoken to each other for decades. There’s all the failures and false starts and disappointments that come with life and living. There’s the truth of who they were as young men, as opposed to their fond memories of the time.
And there’s the fact that launching a spectacular kick at 45 is different from launching a spectacular kick at 18. Very, very, VERY different.
Director/writer Quoc Bao Tran is a master of tonal balance. The Paper Tigers weaves back and forth between comedy and drama throughout its runtime, and it does that weaving with grace and skill across multiple tempos. The Paper Tigers is screamingly funny and pointedly sober for extended stretches.
It also boasts sequences that bounce back and forth between its two poles from beat to beat and moments that combine both to great effect. The post-fight conversation between the Tigers and Carter, for instance, sets in motion their first meeting with Zhen Fan and firmly establishes his villainy. Simultaneously, it features an amazing sight gag that Tran built to throughout the preceding fight.
The same precision with which Tran wields The Paper Tigers‘ tonal shifts is found throughout the picture and shared by its entire creative team.
Cinematographer Shaun Mayor elegantly contrasts the initial cold emptiness of The Paper Tigers‘ present with the warmth of its camcorder vision past. He captures the fights and the arenas in which they play out clearly and elegantly.
As action director, Quitugua shifts between the comic and the dramatic fluidly. Each fight has its own rhythm, from the back-and-forth of the rusty Tigers and the influencers to the intimate, high-stakes rooftop bout between Danny and Zhen Fan. Quitugua makes space for inopportunely pulled muscles and showboating and for intricate two-man choreography and a moment of genuine, transcendent self-mastery.
The Paper Tigers weaves back and forth between comedy and drama throughout its runtime, and it does that weaving with grace and skill across multiple tempos.
The ensemble is strong, both individually and in concert with each other. from Page’s ludicrous-manchild-but-more Carter to Jenkins and Yuan’s coming-to-terms-and-rebuilding Jim and Hing to Quitiugua’s excellent classical villainy – his intimidating skill with the martial arts is matched only by his monstrous, arrogant rejection of them as anything other than a weapon. And as Danny, Uy leads the ensemble with a compelling, and gloriously complex performance.
Danny’s got a lot to resolve. He failed people dear to him, people who he loved, and failed them badly. So he ran away from that version of himself, Danny 8 Hands, Danny the Dojo Buster. He ran so far and so hard that he became the opposite of who he once was… in all the worst ways – unable to commit, unable to follow through, a man seemingly determined to drain all joy and warmth from his life in a misguided attempt at penance.
The Paper Tigers is, in large part, Danny’s journey back to himself – a quest for redemption that is earned not through declaring that he’ll redeem himself, but by acknowledging his failures, and doing the work to repair the damage they have done. In some cases, it’s too late to fix everything. In other cases, there is still an opportunity to start doing right. Uy plays Danny’s journey to this vital realization with care, nuance, and The Paper Tigers‘ stupendous precision. It’s terrific work in a terrific movie.
The blu-ray includes making-of featurettes, an introduction to the Tai Tung restaurant (the oldest Chinese restaurant in Seattle, a favorite of Bruce Lee’s, and an important setting in The Paper Tigers), an extended collection of deleted scenes, bloopers, and The Paper Tigers‘ theatrical trailer.
The Paper Tigers is essential viewing. It’s thoughtful, it’s extremely funny, it has really great martial arts work and a stupendous lead performance from Alain Uy. As I wrote at the top, it’s one of 2021’s very best movies, and my personal favorite of the year so far.’
The Paper Tigers is now available on blu-ray, DVD, and digital services.