As the three young children (also known as The Three Tigers) trained by Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) reach their adulthood, they become the best kung fu fighters in the States. Nevertheless, when they are in their 40s, they wish they had the strength and power from twenty years ago.
The Paper Tigers, Quoc Bao Tran's uninhibited feature debut, focuses on The Three Tigers and the challenges of aging. They don’t talk to each other anymore, they are in bad shape, and they have real-life problems: Danny (Alain Uy) is a divorced father with a high demanding job, who argues with his ex-wife for their child’s custody; Hing (Ron Yuan) is really out of shape and has an injured knee, and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is now a jiu-jitsu fighter in search for a sense of purpose. Sifu Cheung’s death alters everything because it will reunite the friends to investigate what really happened to their master.
One of Bao Tran’s virtues is having the ability to laugh at kung fu without being disrespectful to it. All the martial arts’ traditional features are mocked but at the same time it exists a little bit of spirituality in every action performed by the characters. Somehow, this atmosphere reminds me of Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003), where the Knoxville director presents Uma Thurman as an extremely badass, comic superheroine from the 80’s look-alike, whose witty dialogues make the film a crack-up on several occasions. Additionally, the film's ambiance evokes other martial arts action-comedy films, such as Kung Fu Hustle (2004) or Shaolin Soccer (2001), but with more restraint in its fantastic elements.
Tran uses the same voice to talk about Asian-American culture from a funny and light-hearted perspective. The Chinese-American community is represented by the kung fu fighters. Although this representation is stereotypical and full of clichés, the jokes made by the characters are cheerful and funny, and there is not a single time where I found it harmful or excluding. Rather the opposite, in fact. This topic is brilliantly exemplified by the figure of Carter (Matthew Page), an American white man who is constantly repeating Chinese proverbs in a philosophical way, but Danny and Hing don’t speak Chinese, so they look at each other wondering what just he said.
Quoc Bao Tran succeeds in telling us a story about martial arts, human decay, and friendship. The originality shown by his filmmaking is admirable, and as the title of this review says, The Paper Tigers (2021) brings fresh air to the classic Chinese martial arts genre. The movie is in between a kung fu movie shot in Hong Kong in the 80’s and an American comedy. With the fighting scenes being carefully choreographed and the story told in a very natural way, this picture will entertain you and put a smile on your face on several occasions.