The Paper Tigers (USA, 2020) [SDAFF 2020]

Quite often, western martial art movies are like fake unicorns; they rarely deliver on what they promise. Once in a while, however, we get a film that is not only competent in its treatment of the subject matter, but also knows how to play around with the tropes of the genre. Quoc Bao Tran’s debut feature, The Paper Tigers, certainly belongs to that category, a fun and inspiring martial arts comedy that delivers exactly what it promises. Funded through Kickstarter for just over 100K, The Paper Tigers is a great example of a low-budget action films that, despite a few flaws, is sure to make a great impression on the audience.

The Paper Tigers opens with an 1980s/90s-inspired VHS montage of young Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), three great Gung Fu prodigies trained under legendary Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). In their prime, the three friends had the highest ambitions for themselves, but as life went on, they grew apart from each other and largely ignored their training. Twenty years later, in the throes of middle age, an unfortunate event brings the three friends back together. Their Sifu has died under mysterious circumstances, and it now falls upon them to find out more. Despite the challenges of their everyday lives – such as Hing’s leg injury or Danny’s fatherly duties – the three friends begin an investigation which leads them down a dangerous path of Gung Fu assassins and martial art wannabes.

While the film’s plot is relatively straightforward and filled with recognizable tropes, it does contain the occasional twist and turn to keep the audience on their toes. Still, a large part of the runtime consists of one-on-one fight scenes that, despite their adept choreography, drag on a little longer than they should. Of course, the fighting is never boring or stagnant – on the contrary, it’s a lot of fun to watch – but it does feel gratuitous in most of the fight scenes, even if it’s somewhat justified in the context of the story. The action itself skirts the line between realism and excess, espousing some of the more fantastical elements of Chinese martial arts. Luckily, writer/director Tran shows adequate restrain using these elements, striking a nice balance between the action and the narrative.

Most notably, The Paper Tigers pays homage to a lot of classic Hong Kong cinema, sharing many of the same influences as Quentin Tarantino’s 2003/04 martial arts film Kill Bill. However, whereas Tarantino often imitates for imitation’s sake, writer/director Tran employs his references organically into his well-crafted story and characters. Indeed, it’s the strength of the characters that drives the film forward, as the script carefully navigates away from most obvious cliches of the genre. For instance, the film foregoes the stereotypical training montages on the way to Danny rekindling his kung fu skills, which in itself doesn’t happen until the very end. Uy gives a great performance as the middle-aged father who must overcome the conflicts of his past in order to be at peace with his present. In the process he becomes not only a better father and friend, but he also discovers the true meaning of his martial arts training. All three friends get plenty of screen time in the film, but Danny is the clear star of the show, and Uy carries that role spectacularly.

Ultimately, The Paper Tigers is an impressive achievement of independent filmmaking, a fun and engaging martial arts comedy that fans of classic Hong Kong cinema will find refreshing. It’s not perfect by any means, but its flaws are easily forgiven in lieu of a wall-to-wall great viewing experience.

The Paper Tigers was shown as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival which ran from October 23-31.