Last week saw the world premiere of The Paper Tigers, Tran Quoc Bao’s debut feature, at Fantasia Fest. The film is a kung fu comedy with real heart behind all the kicks and jokes. Like a combination of Mystery Team and Crippled Avengers, with a soupçon of every “coming out of a retirement for one last fight” film ever made, it’s a real delight.
“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.”
An elderly man fights a masked figure in a dark alley, only to end up dead. We then flashback to the past, where the Three Tigers, as children, began learning kung fu in the garage of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). Through a series of VHS vignettes, we watch them train, grow up, and fight their way through a series of opponents. The leader of the Tigers, young Danny (Yoshi Sudarso), is known as “Eight-Hands” for the skill and speed with which he takes down his opponents — including the repeated defeat of another young man named Carter.
Flash forward to modern day, and an older Danny (Alain Uy) is trying to find a parking space in his minivan. We swiftly discover he’s divorced, far too devoted to his work in insurance, and failing as a part-time parent to his young son, Ed (Joziah Lagonoy). After a work call results in Ed sleeping in Danny’s office, rather than a trip to an amusement park, they return home, where another of the Three Tigers, Hing (Ron Yuan), informs Danny that their master has been killed.
From there on out, The Paper Tigers really kicks into gear. We meet the third Tiger, Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), and begin the process of following the three men as they immerse themselves once again in a world which they’ve long been out of. Danny’s former nemesis, Carter (Matthew Page), helps run the dojo of another Sifu, and is one of those white dudes who has so deeply immersed himself in someone else’s culture that he refers to himself as Chinese, and one wonders — given how much he feels that the Tigers have brought dishonor on Sifu Cheung — if he might be the mysterious killer.
There are many possibilities, and being as how this is a kung fu film, we get to watch Danny, Hing, and Jim work their way through a series of ever-increasing opponents on their way to discover who killed their master. The fun of it all is that these are three former friends with a lot of baggage, and a lot of catching up to do. Danny’s put it all aside, Hing blew out his knee years ago, and Jim has gone so far into the world of mixed martial arts, he doesn’t actually remember the martial art he did learn.
There are a lot of fights between the aging Tigers and opponents who are at the top of their game, a rediscovery of the joy of kung fu, and just reconnecting with old friends throughout the course of Bao’s feature, and it was legitimately heartening to watch a movie that almost works as a family film – barring one scene with the n-word that plays on cultural appropriation in a way that’s thankfully hilarious, as opposed to offensive. This is a flick you could sit down and watch with an elementary schooler, and you’d both have a really good time.
I’m soft-selling The Paper Tigers a little bit, because some of the training sequences and dialogue go on a bit too long, and the reuse of the VHS footage a couple times feels like padding, but Tran Quoc Bao really did something impressive here. The fights are good and funny, the characters actually change throughout the course of the film, and it’s heartwarming without feeling cheesy.
Given the fact that this came about from a Kickstarter campaign, it’s even more impressive that Bao and company delivered. It’s a heartwarming story wrapped up with another heartwarming story about people believing in this vision enough to fund it, and that’s just delightful.