I just found out about The Paper Tigers about two days before the movie came out. When I told my friends about it they were, already aware. “Yeah, man that movie been in the works for a good while.” Well shit, lemme apologize for being late first of all. Then I got on my Lois Lane investigative reporting and saw how The Paper Tigers was a movie ten years in the making. What? We doing this for the indie darlings? You damn right we are. This movie was directed and written by Tran Quoc Bao (Mr. Tran if you nasty), and you can tell this is a labor of love as Hollywood was interested in this but wanted the main characters to be white. Mr. Tran wasn’t bout that shit so The Paper Tigers became a DIY (do it your (an implied damn) self-project. Lemme tell you that I’m very glad that that’s the route taken. What got me interested was the sight of a Gung Fu (proper pronunciation and spelling of westernized word “Kung Fu”) movie where the main cast is ethnic. The majority of this film is Asian, and it involves martial arts, I’m in. It’s got a comedic element too? I’m even more in. Oh shit, there’s a Black dude in the main cast too? Well, I’m six feet underground at this point. Hollywood gonna learn the hard way that main characters being ethnic doesn’t hinder, it can only help. Let’s get into it.
The Paper Tigers Don’t Crumble
I’m fucking with this movie man. We open up with an old man fighting a shadowy figure then slowly succumbing to his injuries. The audience is then taken back in time seeing three young kids training in a garage. It’s here we are introduced to Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins). We then see the old man at the beginning as their teacher, Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). We learn that the boys have been taught Gung Fu and been out here fighting in duels or “Beimo.” Beimo matches are one on one skill comparison-type fights in a sense like going to someone’s dojo to challenge them. Sifu Cheung then tells his disciples that fighting without honor is just fighting. He don’t wanna hear bout these cats fighting anymore. We fast forward 5 years later and these boys out in these streets running the Beimo game for they set. Teen boys in the 90’s not fighting and testing their skills? Nah man. We learn here that all three of these kids are nasty with the hands. Danny is so good that he’s called “Danny 8 hands.” He has numerous matches with a kid named Carter (Matthew Page), who seemed to be perhaps bullying him when they were younger kids, and is a martial arts too (this white kid dressed in the whole traditional Chinese garb for these matches too) and cannot beat Danny, Jim, or Hing.
These are the only three disciples of Sifu Cheung, his Three Tigers. We see a scene where Danny inherits the seal making him the inheritor of the dojo. He’s invited to a tournament in Japan. We jump ahead again to present-day, and things done changed. We jump ahead to see Danny is a divorced dad that’s charming but not great at balancing his work life and child life. Hing enters his life again to inform him that Sifu Cheung has died. Danny is willing to come to the funeral but not if Jim is going to be there. At the funeral, they meet Sifu Wong (Raymond Ma) and his disciple, their old rival Carter. Carter then informs that their Sifu’s death wasn’t as simple as a heart attack. This leads to them having to reunite with Jim, catch him up to speed, and find out the truth about the death of their Sifu
We Love Some Unique Dialogue and Action
The dialogue of this movie may very well be my favorite thing. The way Danny, Hing, and Jim interact with each other and Carter in their old age is hilarious. It truly feels like friends catching up after a long time. The way Danny and Jim interact with one another with a clear grudge between them comes off as very authentic. Even though they’re mad at each other, when they see Carter it’s a united front. Matthew Page played the role of Carter so damn well, as when he first sees Danny blurts out, “You’re skinny now…what are you? Sick?” Then looks at Hing saying, “You’re fat. What are you? Sick?” It’s funny how even when you get older and mature, there are certain people from your life, especially when it comes to rivals, that make you resort to the personality/person you were at a younger age. Which for Carter’s case is a bit of a dick.
Alain, Mykel, and Ron’s performances as the Three Tigers really comes out in the dialogue as well as they each of a different dynamic with one another. Alain my man fifty fucking grand, he plays one charming motherfucker through his acting as Danny, and I love the way he salutes during Beimo. you cannot help but be on this man’s side even through his dickhead moments as a character. Ron plays the friend trying to keep everyone on the same page and at peace perfectly. We all have and need a friend like Hing, and you get that through Ron’s portrayal. You root for this man the entire film. Mykkel is fucking funny. They all have great comedic timing, it’s just the way Mykkel throws his quips in, it makes you unsure if the line was written or improved. He brings a lot of range with the character as through his resentment with Danny, his caring side with Hing, and his humor, and then how cold he gets when disrespected. It’s easy to point out which friend you would be when looking at the three of them. Even though they have been out of touch for years, the shame that they felt they brought upon their Sifu is something that unifies them as well as gets them to reverting in and out of how things used to be with their friendship before the falling out.
Hing has an incredible scene about how after Jim and Danny fell out, he stuck with Sifu, and instead of focusing on fighting they diverted to healing and medicine. Sifu use to help the elderly for free on the weekends. He invited Hing to come but Hing was young then and making money doing security work. He didn’t show up and his shame of not doing so is what kept him from reaching out to his Sifu as days turned to weeks, then months and years. The movie does a good job of showing the things people take for granted during their youth that becomes missed during old age. As well as not being able to physically be as you were in your prime. We notice this represented with Hing at the forefront as an injury with his leg puts him a step behind at times, however, he does not let that shit stop him, sometimes to his detriment. Which reminds me, we should get into the action, huh?
The Paper Tigers came out to show their teeth for these fight scenes, and I was so here for it. My favorite thing was the salute during the Beimo matches. They were rooted in reality too which I really appreciated with the fight choreography. There’s an incorporation of mixed martial arts alongside Gung Fu as we’re in present day. It’s also funny but makes sense that Danny and Hing can’t really hang for that long in their fights as they are out of shape, older, and older as compared to Jim who is still fit and a martial arts instructor. However, I really enjoyed watching each character fight and get winded as it represented realism. Danny even says at one point, it’d been so long since he fought however, his body still knew what to do, where to be, and how to react, but getting it to do that was another story. If anything, I actually wanted more fight scenes that give Danny time to get back on his bullshit before the final fight scene. However, that’s with me being greedy.
A Few Misses Before That Home Run
As this is Black Nerd Problems, I gotta talk about something that stood out with the Black character in this film, Jim. I loved him being there as it shows one, Black folks fuck with Gung fu. It also shows that these martial arts and teachers can be for everyone. Jim is accepted into this culture and shown to not be treated as intentionally other. There’s a scene where he talks to Hing and feels like, perhaps the middle child of the three. He states that Sifu saw the others as favorites. Danny inherited the dojo, Hing got the medicinal and healing knowledge /techniques, so what did he get? Hing tells him he always got the best piece of chicken from Sifu’s cooking for them. They laugh. “I’m not going to comment on that,” Jim says, and the scene is called back as they watch an old VHS tape of them celebrating Jim’s birthday. We see he is given the most food, and Hing tells him see, as they’re all getting choked up. I understand the moment with this scene but, it does feel like a reach for Jim’s character to have something of his own. Are we to interpret it as acceptance was the gift because he was loved equally with the other three? Perhaps teaching was the gift, as Jim is the only one that continued fighting and became an instructor. Also, we don’t see Jim’s reactions to hearing that Sifu died and he wasn’t told of the funeral due to the grudge with Danny. When Jim is referred to a racial slur (it’s said without the er but still) the main character’s reaction is to walk away and not fight. Danny not wanting to fight is his character’s stance at the moment for the overall story; however, if we’re including this situation happening with a Black character being spoken to this way by an Asian character in front of his Asian friends, it would have been nice to see Danny not need convincing of all the disrespect hurled their way to be convinced to fight by Hing.
There’s another moment like this where Jim has the right to be upse,t but we don’t see it fleshed out much once the big reveal of what Danny did to Jim in Japan and his reasons behind it. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an entire dick move that could’ve changed Jim’s future but as we see with some other instances, he takes it on the chin. It would have been nice to see him allowed to be more upset with his friend as a part of the Gung Fu culture that they are all connected to. There’s something to be said about when an ethnic character is invited into a different culture and gets slighted but perhaps takes it on the chin due to not wanting to rock the boat even if they are in the right due to fear of no longer being accepted or, in Jim’s case, perhaps be seen as the angry Black male stereotype. It would have been nice to see these certain layers explored with Jim to really solidify his place with his friends. Those were the only things that stood out to me with the character that had me wanting more for him in The Paper Tigers. It’s something that stayed with me but didn’t turn me off from the movie at all. Again, when you’re Black these are the things you notice even if you aren’t looking for it.
Now, the juxtaposition of Carter’s character against Jim’s is an interesting note. We see how deep this Gung Fu game is for Carter where we get into moments where it’s just about skating the line of appropriation but not quite, which was a beautiful touch. The eye rolls from Hing, Danny, and Jim as Carter speaks proverbs in Cantonese that they clearly don’t understand and tell him “Just…just say it in English, man” exhaustedly. Carter is genuine in with how enthused and passionate he is with Gung Fu as we see he became a Sifu. It’s just overbearing at times and can come across as performative. Which is the perfect, perfect way to describe the white folks that identify themselves as an ally a little too hard and too often (yall know the type). It’s funny as we see Jim is from a different background in this culture like Carter but comes across entirely different. This was great writing for how the main characters see and interact with Carter. When Danny called that man a white flour fortune cookie. My god. Again, the dialogue is fucking good, man.
The Paper Tigers is Worth it
There isn’t a reinvention of the genre with this movie. They’re out for revenge and restoring honor to their master who was killed. We’ve seen this before, but we ain’t seen it with jokes getting off. It’s fucking funny. There’s a certain realism brought in with this as well. These are men in their forties and fifties out here doing martial arts and punching well above their weight. I don’t wanna spoil it for folks, and I won’t so I’ll just say the stakes are high in the final fight. The interaction between Jim and Danny during that time is fucking hilarious and again, based in realism and reason if you saw the type of shit that they are dealing with. I enjoyed the fuck out of it, and if you enjoy seeing a story based around ethnic characters that’s got good action, humor, and some depth I think you’ll enjoy it as well. The Paper Tigers is playing in select theaters now or you can check it out on streaming platforms, here’s the information for both. I think this is a movie you’ll be happy you gave a chance.