DISCLAIMER: While this movie is playing in a movie theater, I watched it at a virtual screening room. I still do not feel comfortable going to a theater to see a film yet.
The Paper Tigers is a story of three kung fu students who grow up and grow apart from each other. The mysterious death of their sifu (kung fu master) brings the men together to try and get closure for their fallen master. Along the way they have to reckon with their past mistakes and the ravages that time and lack of practice have put upon their bodies. The film stars Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Matthew Page, Raymond Ma, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy, Ken Quitugua, and Roger Yuan. The film is written and directed by Quoc Bao Tran. The film is playing in select theaters, but also available for VOD rental as well as screening virtually through the Northwest Film Forum website (my personal recommendation).
As I understand it from film and television depictions of kung fu (correctly pronounced as gung fu), the martial art is about the connection between the mind, the body, and the spirit. It is a way to direct the Qi (chi) flowing through all living things. Though, in The Paper Tigers, the old western adage of "if you don't use it, you lose it," may more accurately describe what has happened to the fabled Three Tigers.
I really like that The Paper Tigers isn't a kung fu movie about someone learning the techniques, or a master being challenged at every turn by those seeking to unseat them. Those stories have their place, but they often seem lofty, and a blend of metaphysical and physical that is more magical realism than anything. The Paper Tigers is far more grounded. These former students, while still possessing the muscle memory of their training, are far from the physical condition they need to be in to take on all challengers as they used to. They have lived life and moved on to other pursuits after realizing that kung fu doesn't pay the bills.
I especially love that the character of Jim, who went on to have a career in martial arts and trains other fighters, is still struggling against the kung fu fighters the men face. Jim is a master of Brazilian jiu jitsu, which is a type of mixed martial art that seems to be easily countered by kung fu. I like that writer-director Quoc Bao Tran knew to create a space to show that the fighting styles are incompatible and also make it fun to watch.
It isn't often that there's a riotously funny and affecting kung fu movie, but Tran has found that expert balance. Whether it's the Three Tigers giving each other shit for their lack of practice or the fight scenes that devolve into beat downs, there are a lot of great moments. One of my favorites is after Carter defeats all Three Tigers, he festoons the pudao Hing attacked with, with the cut up pieces of Hing's hair piece. All the interactions with Carter, their old kung fu rival, are gold, but this one takes the cake.
While The Paper Tigers doesn't skimp on the funny, it's also got some incredible fight choreography. The filmmakers saved the best sequence for last as Danny faces off against Zhen Fan. Danny taps into the part of himself he buried deep inside. There's a blackness to the scene around him and the photography is slowed so Danny can predict the movements of Zhen Fan and we are treated to a demonstration of just how kung fu moves work. It's a gorgeous technique that's hinted at in Danny's previous battles, but gloriously pulled off by director Tran, cinematographer Shaun Mayor, and visual effects supervisor Bobby Kuhl.
I loved The Paper Tigers. It's a film that has a bit of everything you want in an action comedy and especially an action comedy with and about kung fu. The other thing I love about The Paper Tigers is that it's a film that is set in Seattle, shot in Seattle, yet REFRAINS FROM A GRATUITOUS SPACE NEEDLE SHOT. Wow, how novel that all the establishing shots show the shadow of the buildings that surround the International District without messing up the geography. What a concept! Anyway, seek this film out, it's well worth your time and if you watch it on the website for the Northwest Film Forum, like I did, you will be supporting the continuing efforts of arts and culture in this region of the world and independent filmmakers here in the Northwest.