There’s no question the abysmal toll taken on theatrical exhibitors left behind by the Covid-19 pandemic. That espeicially included the prospects of any in-person events that folks might have been planning at the top of last year.
With more than a year passing since then, and the progress brought on by the accelerations of vaccine output in the States thanks in large part to a new administration, it’s been rejuvenating somewhat to see moviegoers slowly getting to return to theaters, albeit under continual safety restrictions still in place in many areas. In the midst of it all, it’s especially been opportune for filmmaker Bao Tran as he and his team travel the country to attend select screenings and Q&A events to celebrate the long-awaited release of his feature film debut, The Paper Tigers, now out in theaters and on Digital from Well Go USA.
Following recent stops in Bellevue, Washington and Orange County, California, the director himself arrived in New York City with producers Al’n Duong, Michael Velazquez and Dan Gildark, and lead actor Alain Uy for a three-day weekend promoting the film during the second week of its theatrical run while at the Village East by Angelika.
The screenings were followed by a Q&A with the audience, and Step-&-Repeat photo ops. For me however, there was no screening, as I set out on Saturday evening not really knowing what “the plan” would be.
It was Wednesday afternoon when the celebrated writer/director e-mailed me to inform me that he would be in attendance over the weekend at the Village East by Angelika to help promote the film in front of live audiences, and inquired with me about a post for it. A short while after receiving his e-mail, I responded in kind, and promptly did a piece for it before giving him a phone call via Messenger to discuss meeting up.
Per usual, I panicked (only) a little bit. The initial screenings were too early for me to attend due to my stringent work hours – on top of having to wake up at 4:30am everyday (5am if I’m lucky). Plus, this was a theater in a neighborhood in a part of Manhattan I’ve never really been to, so I was cautiously optimistic about how things would go.
When I finally arrived to the theater, I did eventually find myself in a small bind. Tickets were only available through debit or credit purchases and I only had some cash on hand to pay my way, but there was NO getting in unless I had a ticket either way. And so there was, knowingly late for a movie and just winging it on the hopes of possibly having a good night out with some new friends and acquaintances, and the only thing keeping me from where I might have needed to be was a friggin’ piece of plastic. I stood there at the entrance…stupified, and kind of distraught. I stood there for a good fifteen seconds.
“You want me to buy your ticket for you?” I heard close in the background…
The name behind the voice verbalizing this audacious and kind inquiry into my situation was Franklin, happening to be in front of me in line at a social distance along with his significant other, Rachel, whatever their intended plans were that evening. I reimbursed him right then, and insisted he keep the change after asking if I wanted it. My heart was immediately full, and you better believe I shook the man’s hand and shared a photo right afterward.
This is only the second time this sort of thing happened to me, when complete strangers waiting in line at a movie theater would come to my aid in some form or another; The first time was in the summer of 2012 when I went to Marvel’s The Avengers. I can’t remember which weekend it was, except all I know is that by the time I got to the front of crowded box office, my intended screening was sold out completely. Not knowing what the hell to do with my evening, there was a couple standing a few feet away from me who noticed my disappointment, and what happened in the moments that followed simply blew my mind away. Apparently the extra company that was supposed to join them never did, and with that, they were left with a spare ticket, valid to Regal Cinemas Midway Stadium 9 for that evening, and allowing me to enjoy my night at the movies.
It’s not often you come across that kind of fortune with other people. Really.
Upon that astonishing moment of grace, I took directions from the cashier toward the downstairs theater room where the screening was happening. The first person to greet me was producer Al’n Duong, followed by Michael Velasquez, Bao Tran, and Alain Uy himself who headlines the role of Danny, all of whom were in the Step-&-Repeat photo area waiting to enter for the Q&A.
It was kind of a challenge taking it all in, not wanting to overlook or take anything for granted, and the fact is, really, I wanted to talk to EVERYBODY. That wasn’t the case in all instances, so I prided myself on playing it as cool as I could from moment to moment, even if I ended up gettin’ my dork on bumping into actress Celia Au from Wu Assassins a little later in the evening.
I sat in for the first Q&A around 10pm with a small screening room safely seating up to about thirty people. This effectively put me just several feet away from the moderator, actor Perry Yung, best known for his recent appearance in Eddie Huang’s basketball drama, Boogie, and for his unrelenting, iron-handed portrayal of Father Jun in hit Cinemax series, Warrior, which has just been greenlit for a third season exclusive to WarnerMedia’s streaming brand, HBO Max.
The segmemt lasted for a good ten-to-fifteen minutes with Perry engaging with questions the team, along with a fellow production designer and consultant Wing Lee, who the team heralded for bringing authenticity and originality to some of the key set pieces and props for the film; Wing’s colleagues introduced me to him and his wife, Jinny, minutes later, admirably dubbing them as Mr. and Mrs. Royalty. The moviegoing crowd also brought on some first-time introductions to a few Facebook friends, including actress and jewelry designer Angel Pai, actor Geoff Lee (Made In Chinatown), stunt coordinator Kenny Wong (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and actor/stunt performer Tom Caserto (Abduction).
Following the Q&A, several of us took photos. I tried to take some decent selfies with people that evening, and after the crowd dispersed, I went along with The Paper Tigers team and supporters Angel and Celia, crewmember Omar King and a few others to a bar across the street where I played it safe with a couple of servings of Ginger Ale courtesy of a friend of Dan’s from Seattle by way of Colombia, and got to talk some more exclusively with Bao about touring, his current project status, some of his work preferences and beliefs, and particularly with how intergral production assisstant Omar King was. Omar was with us for most of the evening as we drank, jazzed and mingled with each other, and at one point I watched and observed King and Bao as they reflected a bit on some of the hurdles they endured during production; Omar, in the midst of a jovial spell, adamantly referred to Bao as “this fucking motherfucker” which gave me a chuckle, while Bao praised Omar for his unabashed dauntlessness at times when it counted, particularly accounting for one moment during production when one of the drivers got lackadaisical.
By around 11:30, the bar was closing up and we were all headed back to the theater, and in the midst of it all and hoping to end my evening on a high note, I made sure to responsibly let the team know I’d be leaving so as to not infringe on their prep for the final Q&A of the day. I got to say one last goodbye to Alain, Bao, Al’n, Dan, Omar, and Michael, but not before one small chat between two newfound friends. It was as sobering as it was convivial and reflective of the past six or so years, and it felt great to share space, and in the open outdoors, as many handshakes and hugs as we wanted. Most of the attendees that evening remained masked and were otherwise fully vaccinated like myself, which allowed us to embrace one another as much as we did. And it was freaking beautiful.
It’s always a bittersweet experience leaving such an audacious and fun get-together with people you would otherwise only get to see on occasion. The last time I had that feeling was in November 2019 when I met up with some of my usual Urban Action Showcase regulars, including some new faces from Florida’s indie film community, and the star and director team (Masanori Mimoto and Kensuke Sonomura) behind Japanese action thriller, Hydra. It’s also been a few years since I’ve seen my ASDO friends from Cherry Hill, N.J., including Joey Min and collaborating partner, filmmaker and stunt legend Robert Samuels who made my birthday a debut moment to remember in 2019, and even longer since I got to chill over burgers and fight scene clips with Joey Ansah select team members behind Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist.
While I didn’t get to see The Paper Tigers on the big screen over the weekend, it also took nothing away from the larger reward of finally being granted a face-to-face with another director whose work I’ve spent more than half a decade promoting; Bao spent a good deal of his time more than a decade ago collaborating with a burgeoning stunt team called Zero Gravity which helped blaze a trail for many online indie action creatives and film talents building their careers today. The team gave a much-deserved shout-out to the stunt label on Saturday evening.
The energy was simply amazing with everyone made acquaintance with. It WAS awkward at times because I didn’t know what to do with my enthusiasm, but again, I played it cool, dorked out in small bursts and went back to cool. I got to hug TV stars, and the lead of a kung fu movie premiere. I took a selfie with one of the most prominent names in recent television history. And, I got to laugh, cheer and share a drink with nearly all of them, including a debut filmmaker working to help pave the way for Asian Americans on both sides of the lens, and with an eye to bring you both entertainment as well as excellence. Such is what’s on the agenda for The Paper Tigers as it aims to continue its theatrical run in New York City for a third week!
I’m gonna miss this bunch. Apart from the often toxic and unnerving atmosphere of social media, it was lovely getting to return to some theatregoing scenery after more than a year stuck in isolation. It’s what I love most about what I do with this website, and as always, I really hope this isn’t the last. I mean that with every fiber of my being, and I further hope that anyone else in my shoes would be as fortunate as I was to bump into a Frank and Rachel when it counted the most.
I’m thankful for what I do on here, and the good fortune it can help bring for others, and the caring, gratitude and opportunities it continues to bring me from both colleagues, as well as creatives in film and entertainment, and for some of the meaningful friendships it’s brought me along the way… This city is unrelenting most days. Once in a while though, sometimes…JUST sometimes… it can smile on you.
*A previous version of this article was promptly updated on Monday with word of The Paper Tigers extending its theatrical run for a third week in New York City following its release on May 7.