Late one evening, a venerated martial arts master Sifu Cheng (Roger Yuan) is quickly dispatched by a superior opponent cloaked in shadow, who respectfully bows and fades into darkness as the master succumbs to his injuries. Though jarring, it quickly sets a shocking tone for ‘THE PAPER TIGERS’ (TPT) before quickly doing a flashback into the past with three young pupils being mentored by the aforementioned fallen master. The young children are friends Danny, Hing and Jim (played by child actors Kieran Tamondong, Bryan Kinder and Malakai James).
Through the literal lens of VHS, these memories show how this trio develop into talented and lethal martial arts fighters, winning challenge matches in high school, at rival dojos and even on the street. Teens Danny (Yoshi Sudarso), Hing (Peter Adrian Sudarso) and Jim (Gui DaSilva-Greene) quickly gain notoriety for their prowess and are dubbed as ‘The Three Tigers’, growing their reputation thus prompting overseas fight opportunities. They afford their opponents little mercy, boasting equal parts swagger and skill as they quickly dispatch opponents with a single kick or punch.
As soon as the nostalgia goggles refocus, TPT ushers us back into the present day. Danny (Alain Uy) is a middle aged corporate type balancing life a single father in conflict with his ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park) as they share joint custody of their young son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy). Hing (Ron Yuan) is a now a portly herbal medicine expert on workers compensation due to a leg injury; whilst Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) has diversified his fighting skills and operates as an MMA instructor. Though living separate lives, the three are brought together with news that their master, Sifu Cheng has died from a heart attack. United by suspicion as much as solidarity, the three Tigers unite once again to determine the real cause of Sifu Cheng’s demise. On their quest for answers , the Three Tigers encounter a ‘friendly’ adversary in Carter (Matt Page) from their teen years, a trio of talented but obnoxious young kung fu exponents (Andy Le, Brian Le and Phillip Dang) and the memories of the past as their martial arts training resurfaces out of necessity more than nostalgia.
At a cursory glance one may be forgiven for assuming that TPT is a simple revenge story, yet this would be an inaccurate assessment. More uniquely, TPT uses this call back to the classic 1970s martial arts films where revenge was primary motivator for fighting. However, rather than subscribe to a trope or appear derivative, the focus of TPT centres on its characters. Each of them has to accept that the iconic status they established in their youth, has been eroded by the rigors of adult life. Danny, once known as ‘Danny Eight Hands’, is now a middle aged father struggling to be the ideal parent, often putting his work as an insurance consultant before his son. The promising herbal doctor in Hing suffers from a constant leg injury making him less nimble than he was before, though his mastery of Traditional Chinese Medicine is now more pronounced. And though seemingly the most adept of the three, the now middle aged Jim has traded the graceful high kicks of Sifu Cheng’s Kung Fu instead embracing the grappling style of MMA.
There are a few sub plots such as Danny’s co-parenting and the ever present element of bullying, yet TPT doesn’t allow itself to be bogged down by side stories. In fact, the film weaves these efficiently into the DNA of the story thus retaining the audience enthusiasm throughout.
Director Bao Tran delivers with a deeply engaging sincerity, demonstrating not just a passion for action films but also a masterful discussion of character dynamic. Tran’s style is an effective fusion somewhat reminiscent of the smart comedy of Tina Fey or Judd Apatow, with the added bonus of 80s Hong Kong martial arts cinema. The world that Tran has created deserves the utmost attention, as you become so immersed in the characters that are relatable and yet the laughs-per-minute quotient is also remarkably frequent. There is a real freshness to this movie with Tran devising something so original, thereby making his vision profoundly potent. Herein is an earnest quality to Tran’s direction, with a vibrancy in each shot whether it be the inviting setting of a lounge room with friends to the more unsettling night time scenario of a moonlit pier. None of his characters become trivial filler, as the combination of a strong script and very effective directing foster a palatable connection to the protagonists. There is such powerful chemistry between the three, that one could easily believe these are indeed childhood friends.
Ironically, the protagonist Danny, is prima facie, less physically imposing than his Tiger brethren. Whilst Jim boasts an impressive physique that matches his foray into MMA and Hing is decidedly out of shape due to injury, Danny is lithe by comparison – perhaps making him the titular reference point. However, as with the elusiveness of Sifu Cheng’s killer, all is not as it seems and certainly that mystery is applied to Danny Eight Hands.
Both the Yuan Brothers are stalwarts in action cinema, and are a joy to see on screen though younger brother Ron is a scene stealer as Hing gives some great comic relief. Roger is relegated to somewhat of a cameo as Sifu Cheng but his presence does give the film that gravitas. Mykel Shannon Jenkins is always a cheeky delight to see on screen, and his grappling expertise was a neat change of pace from his cocky boxer in ‘UNDISPUTED 3’ alongside Scott Adkins. And the fearsome Chozen of ‘KARATE KID 2’ and ‘COBRA KAI Season 3’ makes a very funny cameo, with Yuji Okumoto also serving as a Producer of TPT.
The inclusion of Matt Page as Carter, the former teen nemesis of the Tigers is a definitive crowd pleaser. Unsurprisingly, Page has some brilliant comic timing as his online alter ego of Master Ken on his wildly popular satire ‘ENTER THE DOJO’ forever being cemented into pop culture. Page holds his own, as the over-zealous martial artist whose enthusiasm matches his skill. Hilariously, Carter’s unhealthy obsession into the martial arts and associated culture fosters an immersion that enabled him to literally become more ethnically Chinese, even perplexing the three with his command of the language. Page manages to be imposing both in physicality and comedy.
It’d be ethically remiss if this reviewer fails to mention Andy and Brian Le, who like the aforementioned Page, have built their own mass following through their MARTIAL CLUB channel online on YouTube. The choreography of the Le brothers (along with their frequent collaborator Danial Mah who is absent in this outing) is simply sublime – and quite frankly is far superior to much of the action output coming out of many contemporary Hollywood productions. These young chaps rely on pure skill, eschewing any wires, shake cams or trick photography, MARTIAL CLUB’s intricate fight scenes are jaw dropping. Their deliberate petulant behavior in TPT, would otherwise make them unlikable if not for their incredible talent especially with their acrobatic speed and accuracy in their kicking. The Le Brothers and MARTIAL CLUB could easily be responsible for the renaissance or rebirth of that era where Hong Kong action choreography was in its purest form – that is prior to its sudden appropriation by The Wachowski Brothers via ‘THE MATRIX’ in 1999.
Though TPT shares some thematic similarities with the COBRA KAI series, it manages to exceed it, especially in terms of the action choreography. Whilst Cobra Kai’s action may seem sloppy due to realism, TPT manages to retain realism with the sharpness of its action. Additionally, whilst there are some unintendedly cringe worthy moments in COBRA KAI, TPT manages to be genuinely funnier in the way characters interact.
Furthermore TPT explores the concept of Beimo, which predates both the modern contemporary tournament and cage fighting scenarios; unbounded by rules or points two skilled opponents would face off on Hong Kong rooftops. Seemingly now a relic of the past, TPT manages to bring back this concept in true form, specifically at one tense confrontation of the movie.
As a feel good action comedy, the movie concludes in a decidedly formulaic fashion neatly wrapping up the story. Though nothing teases a sequel, the strength of its characters and themes could no doubt present this avenue – as Bao Tran clearly deserves more opportunities and beyond. He has fused old school sensibilities with modern storytelling, punctuated by superb action and comedy that for the most part, works extremely well. He has even inserted pop culture nods to bodybuilding, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and even the Konami Code!
From a personal stand point two friends of mine, Jo Jo Doble and Lisa Maree Saygun (both supremely talented figure champions within the IFBB Pro League here in Australia) expressed gleeful excitement when viewing TPT’s trailer, with Jo Jo saying “Looks really good can’t wait to see it. Kids will love that one too” whilst Lisa Maree chimed in with “Oh I love it…just saw the trailer, when can we go see it?” These first impressions by two athletes (both from an entirely separate discipline to martial arts) clearly denote unequivocal truths about the film, in that old and young will justifiably fawn over it – for it is an exceptional work. Evidently, the impact of the trailer alone presents enough anticipation to warrant real excitement, and this all from the first directorial feature of Bao Tran.
THE PAPER TIGERS is a rarity in that has the potential to not merely to attain a film cult status but establish itself within the pantheons of modern action cinema. This is a genuinely impressive first directorial effort, with a masterful pacing that keeps you invested from start to finish.
It serves as a surprising and shiny movie gem for 2021, and eagerly anticipating these tigers baring their claws for a sequel.
Well Go USA will release The Paper Tigers in theaters and On Demand beginning May 7, 2021.