Earnestness is underrated. Cynicism and brutality have their time and place, especially in martial arts films, but sometimes it’s refreshing to be reminded why the art form matters and what can happen when taken too far.
Western action puts a heavy emphasis on jacked guys kicking ass and taking names, quipping about how cool they are or how crazy their situation is along the way. When it’s clicking, that can be a ton of fun, but it becomes tough to watch when the prerogative has been placed on that and not on the action itself. You forget that this stuff hurts. Investment becomes almost nonexistent because you’re just watching people do unbelievable things with very little effort. It becomes visual noise that washes over you with little impact. Action has largely forgotten that we need to care about our central figures. It’s not enough to say “Isn’t this cool??” Enter Bao Tran’s utterly delightful The Paper Tigers.
In 1993, three students of Gung Fu, Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) drift apart after a tournament. They leave each other and their beloved Sifu, or master, Cheung behind. Fast forward to the present and the men are living separate lives, washed up and old. After receiving word that their Sifu has died, Danny and Hing attend his funeral and are approached by Carter (Matthew Page), Danny’s old rival. He tells them he doesn’t think their Sifu’s death was of natural causes and that three young upstarts may be involved. The two men, after reuniting with Jim, set off on an investigation of sorts to find their Sifu’s killer and more importantly, find the passion and brotherhood they thought was long gone.
Making great use of a small budget from Kickstarter and some help from investors, Tran wears his love for the form firmly on his sleeve. The Paper Tigers is a very funny film but none of the jokes ever come at the expense of Gung Fu or take away from its seriousness. His desire to make the film came out of a love and respect for martial arts and it couldn’t be more clear. From setting the film in Seattle as a tribute to Bruce Lee to having actors Phillip Dang and well-known YouTube martial artists, Andy Le and Brian Le of Martial Club, appear as the punk kids the trio initially goes after, this is steeped in a very real appreciation.
That appreciation is the driving force behind the film’s success but it’s almost embarrassing how this little movie puts some of the bigger martial arts flicks to shame from a technical standpoint. Gorgeous camerawork accentuates the incredible fights, choreographed by the film’s villain Ken Quitugua. This year saw major films like Nobody and Mortal Kombat release to waves of astonishment at their set pieces. While there’s certainly good to be found in those, they lack something that Tran understands in his bones: how to frame action effectively. The Paper Tigers has a fraction of a fraction of those larger film’s budgets but you can see every single fight down to every gorgeous kick and brutal punch to the face. We seek out martial arts flicks because we want to see the human body do things that shouldn’t be physically possible. There’s too much of a premium put on quick cuts where almost nothing is visible until the final explosion of gore. It brings us right back to “isn’t this cool??” and while the answer is usually “Yes”, those fights leave your mind a lot sooner than something with as much passion, visibility and impact as those in The Paper Tigers. There’s a shot in this, a slow zoom of the villain hitting a punching bag, that’s as stunning and reverent to the subject in the frame as anything you’ll see this year.
Tran’s filmmaking prowess is unquestionable but what really makes this sing is our trio. We’ve seen this kind of story time and time again, guys past their prime come back for one last match, game, fight, whatever. That doesn’t matter because our three leads have such lovely chemistry together and Tran puts in the work getting you to care about them. Yuan and Jenkins have martial arts bonafides for days, both putting in years worth of work in the genre. Alain Uy is a relative unknown but as the ostensible lead, “Danny 8 Hands” (so named for his astonishingly quick hands as a younger man), he’s a revelation. So full of humanity and sadness, he just kills as the guy who once was somebody and is now struggling to identify who he is or where he went wrong. He struggles as a father, is in the midst of a separation with his wife and meanders through life, the ghosts of his past lingering in his mind. The pain in every line on his face is heartbreaking, leaving you almost begging for catharsis from the inevitable final showdown. Tran has spoken about how the three men became fast friends on set and it’s obvious in the final product. They finish each other’s sentences, having that natural rapport that comes with a lifelong friendship. Much of this is in Tran’s script of course but these guys carry the weight of lives marred by things left unsaid and unmade memories from a painful split. It’s a remarkable dynamic.
Their journey is one of redemption and that’s what Tran gets better than anything else. Yuan’s Hing is hobbled by a bad knee, Jenkin’s Jim has forgotten most of what his Sifu taught him and it’s almost entirely up to Danny to avenge their loss. But within this quest for vengeance is the lesson that the beauty and grace in Gung Fu shouldn’t be used for offense and when you go down that path, ugly things happen. These guys get hurt. And it’s not just that they get hurt and dust themselves off, it’s that they get hurt and carry that pain for the rest of their lives. They’re frequently embarrassed by guys like Carter (played by a very funny, if sometimes over-the-top YouTube Martial Arts/Comedic sensation Master Ken), or the punks they first encounter. There’s not glory in vengeance. It’s a dark, violent path full of lifelong scars.
Thankfully, that earnest quality running through The Paper Tigers is ever present and when the film gets serious, that’s what makes it effective. This isn’t Liam Neeson running through guys at 60 years old, barely breaking a sweat. These are middle-aged men, way past their prime, legitimately injuring themselves to feel just an ounce of the pride they felt as young men. But even more than that, it’s three men going through hell and back to rediscover the once unbreakable bond they shared. When the punches hit, you feel them. When Hing’s knee gives out, you wince in pain with him. When “Danny 8 Hands” begins to slowly resurface, you feel yourself rise out of your seat with him.
At its best, The Paper Tigers is a dynamite crowd pleaser full of heart. It’s not trying to show you something “cool.” It’s showing you the lived-in reality of a few men who used to matter and telling you (and them) that they still do. That they’re good men and even better friends. And at the end of the day, no spinal column being ripped out of bodies or comedian-turned-action hero could ever compete.
The Paper Tigers arrives on Blu-Ray and DVD this week!
BLU RAY SPECIAL FEATURES:
-Behind The Scenes Featurette