28th Sep2020

Fantasia 2020: ‘The Paper Tigers’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Joziah Lagonoy, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Ken Quitugua, Roger Yuan | Written and Directed by Bao Tran

Essentially The Paper Tigers is a feel-good movie that uses martial arts as a vehicle for a story about finding oneself, re-discovering not only friendships of youth but also one’s self-esteem. In this case self-esteem that comes with martial arts – the quite strength, the feeling a of power that comes from the discipline that one needs to fully learn and be in control of your skills.

As teens, friends Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) were inseparable. Loyal disciples to their Sifu, Master Cheung (Roger Yuan), they trained together, fought together and planned to become the next great martial arts masters. Life, as they say, has other plans, and when Danny left to take part in a tournament in Japan, the three friends drifted apart. Now, nearly 30 years later, tragedy brings them back together. Sifu has been killed, and the three friends, now strangers, reunite to fulfill their promise to him and catch his killer.

It’s rather apt that The Paper Tigers debuted at Fantasia the same year that The Karate Kid spin-off Cobra Kai exploded into mainstream consciousness after its move to Netflix, as both film and TV show deal with what comes after… In this case after the trio have moved on with their lives and some of whom have even left martial arts behind. They’re older, not exactly wiser, and their bodies are definitely not in the same condition as before, but they’re about to discover they still haven’t learned everything martial arts – and friendship – can teach them.

There have been plenty of sequels to a myriad of martial arts films, stars of the 90s are STILL to this day trying to make the same kinds of action movies, kung-fu flicks etc., as they did back in the day – oftentimes showing themselves up in the process. However The Paper Tigers shows those performers how things can be done… You can still do the moves kick all the ass you want, but you can’t ignore the fact you’re old(er) and you don’t move as well, or with as much grace as you once did. It doesn’t detract from your skills, as we see in the end of Bao Tran’s film, but you’ve changed. And it’s that transition in life and coming to terms with both your past and present that makes The Paper Tigers such compelling viewing.

It doesn’t hurt that Tran has a trio of leads who are absolutely tremendous at what they do. They have skills – not only in martial arts, MMA, etc, but also in acting. The trio of Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Alain Uy and Ron Yuan, pull off their characters with aplomb. They’re also three thirds of one whole, each actor bringing something to the table that the other doesn’t and each character doing the same. Whilst this cadre of actors may have come together just for this film it doesn’t feel like it – the script and performances really make this trio feel like they’ve been together for years, experienced life together and truly gone on the same journey as their characters. Which means there’s a real believability and authenticity to everything within The Paper Tigers.

And that authenticity does wonders for the films more extravagant plot: the idea that three old men would fight for their lives – even with the concept of honoring the death of their sifu – against an enemy that SHOULD be able to take them out without breaking a sweat. But he doesn’t, and you believe that he can’t thanks to the way these characters are written and performed. The Paper Tigers is also a traditional underdog tale, a la the aforementioned The Karate Kid, only here the underdogs have already been the heroes, the winners, and now they’re trying not only to overcome their enemy but also their own shortcomings.

In the end this ‘simple’ story of three men coming together to mourn and honour the death of their sifu, is in fact anything but simple. It’s a complex, deep, and deeply emotional, story of what to means to be human.

The Paper Tigers screened as part of this years Fantasia Festival, which took place Aug 20th – Sept 2nd 2020.

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