THE PAPER TIGERS is a warm-hearted indie underdog comedy set in the martial arts world. It’s about three former American gung fu (that’s the spelling and pronunciation they use) prodigies now living unremarkable middle aged lives, who reunite after their master is killed. It has a smattering of jokes that are too broad for me, but it takes its characters and its martial arts very seriously, and it’s so full of heart it’s hard not to love. So why fight it?
The goofy thing is I only rented this on VOD because Vyce Victus and Adkins Unleashed’s Michael Scott were separately raving about it on Twitter. Then in the cold open I saw what sure looked like the Smith Tower, and the credits were set to a song by Kid Sensation (beatboxing padawan of Sir Mix-a-Lot), and holy shit, this movie is entirely filmed in Seattle (and nearby Shoreline), how did I not know about it already? I’ll go into some Seattle stuff later, but please accept the praise of the above mentioned as evidence that I’m not just rooting for the local product.
We learn the story of “The Three Tigers” in the form of home videos from the ‘90s. Danny, Jim and Hing (played as teenagers by Yoshi Sudarso, Gui DaSilva-Greene and Peter Adrian Sudarso, two of whom were Power Rangers) were the only three students of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan, AMERICAN KICKBOXER 1, RING OF STEEL, TRUE VENGEANCE, LETHAL WEAPON 4, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, ACCIDENT MAN, “The Fiendish Dr. Wu” in BLACK DYNAMITE, etc.). He harshly trained them in his garage, and they were so dedicated to his teachings that they held a ritual to literally brand Danny’s wrist as the clan’s heir apparent.
Then life happened and all the sudden Danny (Alain Uy, True Detective, Helstrom) hasn’t done any gung fu in forever, he works in insurance or something, his ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park, DEVIL IN THE FLESH 2) is sick and fucking tired of him showing up late to pick up his son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy), and the kid is crushingly used to him answering business calls and cancelling plans. Which is what happens today like two minutes into their drive to “Magic Land.”
(Nitpick: I found that name distracting. Their favorite ride is “Mount Splash,” but I don’t think it’s code for Disneyland. It can’t be the actual Washington theme park Enchanted Village either, because nobody would be that excited for it.)
Father-son weekend is further derailed when Hing (Ron Yuan, BLOODFIST V, director of STEP UP CHINA) shows up and informs Danny about Sifu Cheung’s death. Hing stayed in touch with Cheung longer than Danny did, but has been out of martial arts because he injured his knee working at a factory. They go to the funeral without the third Tiger, Jim, because Danny is still sore about an at-first-unexplained falling out back in the day. But conversations with Cheung’s colleague/rival Sifu Wong (Raymond Ma, CITY OF INDUSTRY) and his arrogant gweilo student Carter (Matthew Page, SICARIO) lead Danny to believe that their Sifu’s heart attack was actually a death touch type deal. So it’s his responsibility as heir to reunite the clan and get to the bottom of this.
Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins – Turbo from UNDISPUTED III!) turns out to be the only one still in fighting shape, working at an MMA gym – but he’s not even the top guy there, doesn’t get much respect, and has forgotten much of what he learned in that garage back in the day. So the three of them reunite to snoop around anyone who might know something about what happened to Sifu while confronting the past conflicts that ended their friendships and attempting to reignite if not the actual hot-shit skills they had when they were young, at least the spirit that martial arts once brought to their lives.
So these guys who used to be legends and now know they’re a joke suddenly dive back into a world where all disagreements are solved by Beimo – pitting one’s fighting skills against another’s. There are no wires or gratuitous handsprings, every fight is difficult and painful, and the story is grounded in the mundane realities of aging and disappointment. But there’s one magical realist aspect: Hing learned Eastern medicine techniques from their Sifu, which includes reviving a person who seems to be basically dead by hitting their spine in the right spot. It’s the opposite of the “poison finger,” which Sifu did not teach him, and it’s a good excuse to make the fights really punishing without just pretending everyone is indestructible.
There’s the occasional corny joke, like they get all excited for a big chase but then the music slows to a halt because they got like ten feet before collapsing of exhaustion. Because they’re out of shape. Wocka wocka. But when it comes to the challenges there’s some genuinely funny interaction and effective suspense as you root for them to get back up or are thrilled that one of them manages to throw a guy against a wall or something. There’s a long, great sequence where the old guys take on cocky young hipsters who have cool hair and like to record everything for Instagram clout. The young guys work well as a fighting and comedy team because they’re played by Andy Le, Phillip Dang and Brian Le, who I have learned make shorts on Youtube under the name Martial Club (as well as doing stunts on things like Into the Badlands, SHANG-CHI and Black Lightning).
Since I don’t know that Youtube world I also wasn’t familiar with Page, who it turns out plays a similar character to Carter called “Master Ken” on a series he created called Enter the Dojo. He’s more broadly comedic than anyone else in the movie, seeming like someone that could’ve been a Daily Show correspondent, and I wouldn’t mind more nuance than that. Not that he seems phony – he’s tall and handles himself well in some long fight sequences. And it is pretty interesting to see this initially goofy character turn into a real threat and then reveal other layers. But I think I might’ve preferred it the other way around – a more straight performance but also you laugh at him for being a white guy proudly sharing his Chinese wisdom with actual Asian people.
It took me a bit to accept Jenkins as washed up, because he looks like an actual badass. Obviously I know him from UNDISPUTED III, but apparently to many he’s a guy who got a part on General Hospital by winning a reality show competition? And then he was on The Bold and the Beautiful. But this makes you wonder why he’s not starring in a bunch of action movies.
I have the same question regarding Ken Quitugua, who is the action director and plays the villain, Zhen Fan. He’s an original member of the ZeroGravity Stunts team, but he doesn’t even have a profile photo on IMDb, and most of his credits are in shorts. I’ve been told I have to check him out in the 2015 movie UNLUCKY STARS, so I will do that. He’s so impressive here: a handsome dude with powerful screen presence, and a skilled screen fighter who conveys a ton of character and story through his performance during the fights. He makes a great villain, but I bet he could also be a James Dean type rebel hero.
It makes me happy that Roger and Ron Yuan are both in this, because they’re a certain type of veteran martial arts/stunt guys I love – the ones who almost never have their names on the DVD cover, but who’re gonna pop up unexpectedly and make you happy if you know their faces. I’m talking about guys like Al Leong or Nils Allen Stewart or, these days, Daniel Bernhardt. The Yuan Brothers played the “Ninja Wraiths” in DOUBLE DRAGON and last year they were in the live action MULAN, so they’ve been around the block.
They’re both perfect for their roles here, but Ron Yuan as Hing is, to me, the very best thing about the movie. This is a guy I’ve seen in DRIVE, CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE, TIMECOP: THE BERLIN DECISION, FAST & FURIOUS, BLOOD AND BONE, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON, THE ACCOUNTANT, etc., but he’s usually a henchman or a master or something, never a funny, relatable, regular guy main character like this. And he absolutely knocks it out of the park (specifically T-Mobile Park, formerly Safeco Field, which borders the International District and is in the background of the climactic rooftop fight). Hing is a big smiling guy who you instantly love and you really want to see him show some guys what’s what if that bum leg doesn’t stop him.
My favorite part of the script uses the rule of three well. First, Hing scoffs at a stranger’s technique on the basis of knowing what a powerful kick is supposed to sound like. Second, he identifies the deadliest fighter in a crowded gym by listening for that sound. (I love shit like that.) Third, he has to trail said fighter to a restroom, where he discovers that his peeing also sounds powerful. (I will go ahead and declare that my favorite joke in the movie.)
It’s worth noting that it’s pretty rare to see a movie with a primarily Asian-American cast who are treated as Americans and not exoticized at all. In fact there’s a running gag that Carter is obsessed with traditions and rituals that Danny and Hing don’t give a shit about, and they all roll their eyes when he says Chinese phrases to them, knowing that they don’t speak it. According to his IMDb bio, writer/director Quoc Bao Tran was mentored by Corey Yuen, and he edited the 2013 Vietnamese action film CHO LON, but he was born in Olympia and lives in Seattle. In promotion for the movie he’s said that Hollywood producers asked him to rewrite the movie for Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage, while some potential Asian-American investors felt the martial arts subject matter was too stereotypical.
It’s not my business to say what value the movie has to a community I don’t belong to, but as a fan of martial arts movies I really like how much it respects the traditions and standards of the genre while being something different. I kind of loved it, and I imagine if I was a person who felt I’d let my job get in the way of my passion or my ability to become the person I wanted to be, then it would become my manifesto. Highly recommended.
Of course I found myself often watching the background trying to figure out where the scenes were filmed, but often it’s, like, a small portion of a park that could be one of many different parks, and I wasn’t able to distinguish. The easiest places to recognize were the exteriors in the International District, with identifiable signage.
I was excited to correctly identify the restaurant where the bathroom assassination takes place as China Harbor, because I’ve never actually been inside, but it’s a huge black-tiled building along the shore of Lake Union, and I always wondered what it looked like inside. Yep, pretty much how I pictured it!
KARATE KID PART II villain Yuji Okumoto is a producer on the film, and has a cameo as a waiter at that restaurant. In real life he has his own restaurant, Kona Kitchen, which is not like that place at all – it’s small and homey with delicious food and photos and posters on the wall honoring his history in b-movies. I’ve only been there once but I promise to go back some time after I’m vaccinated.
I believe the end credits have a song by Prometheus Brown, a.k.a. Geologic of the group Blue Scholars. He’s good.
I appreciate that they never show the Space Needle or state that they are in Seattle, but do have a Soundgarden t-shirt and Supersonics jacket as period detail in one of the videos set in the ’90s. So this is not Unnamed City, it’s just City Whose Name You Don’t Have to Mention All the Time.
Further viewing: After seeing the movie I vaguely recollected having heard about Seattle people trying to produce a martial arts movie several years ago. I figured out it was because I had seen director Quoc Bao Tran’s 2015 short The Challenger, which was made as a proof of concept prequel to THE PAPER TIGERS, though with actors from the movie playing different characters. The titular challenger is played by Andy Le (one of the young guys in the pool fight) and he’s challenging PAPER TIGERS villain Ken Quitugua, who also did the choreography here. It’s simple, but it shows you their chops.