The Paper Tigers: two takes from Stanford students
November 1, 2020
Poison Fingers and Recognizing Responsibility in Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers
Guest post by Morgan Gwilym Tso, student at Stanford University
As someone who was involved in martial arts as a young person, I was quickly drawn to The Paper Tigers after watching its SDAFF trailer. It’s a fun, modern, kung fu film with a middle-aged twist that feels right at home alongside Cobra Kai, the 2018 spinoff of the original Karate Kid. Directed by Bao Tran, Paper Tigers sometimes struggles to fully flush out its characters’ intentions throughout its quick beats, but overall manages to tightly blend the expected comedy and action with moments of genuine sentimentalism.
After a brief opening action sequence to set the story rolling, we are thrown into an extended sequence of old video recordings that introduce us to our three heroes: Danny, Hing, and Jim. Training under the legendary Sifu Cheung in a small garage, it becomes evident that the bond shared by the trio and their connection to their master are going to be the centerpieces of this film. We watch them during this montage as they grow into young men, messing around and besting opponents until Danny (played by Alain Yu), seemingly the most talented of the three, receives word that he will be competing in an international tournament in Japan. Danny is branded with the mark of the Sifu’s school, promising to uphold the honor he has been taught before, we are brought to the modern day and into our story.
From here, the movie plays out pretty much as expected. Danny is now a middle-aged father and divorcee, working in insurance and struggling to find time to spend with his son. The trio broke apart due to an incident we later learn happened preceding the tournament in Japan and the magic that they held was lost. After learning of their Sifu’s death (and realizing the potential for foul play), they must overcome their past conflicts, seek justice for their former teacher, and forgive themselves for losing the path of honor they had promised themselves. Oh, and along the way they need to confront the mysterious Disciple, an assassin with knowledge of terrifying and deadly kung fu techniques.
I found the pacing of the film to actually suit it quite well. There are numerous well-choreographed fight scenes that manage to make the middle-aged leads look like they’d stand a chance against younger opponents, while still feeling the rustiness in their skills. Tran does a great job of balancing these moments with softer beats between characters that show genuine care and development. One is a scene between Mykel Shannon Jenkins’ Jim and Ron Yuan’s Hing. In one of the movie’s few moments not involving protagonist Danny, we learn of these two’s relationship to their Sifu, and especially the guilt Hing, who feels he was the last to abandon Sifu Cheung, continues to hold onto. It’s a wonderful moment between two characters who, up until now, felt overshadowed by Danny’s story arc. Then there’s Danny’s own relationship to Ed, his son, which involves real growth over the course of the film and includes owning up to difficult topics of fatherhood and responsibility.
That being said, there are moments and plot points that do feel somewhat rushed. Despite causing a 25-year long rift between the characters, Danny’s abandonment of the Japan tournament and the terrible position it put Jim in is forgiven and healed over the course of a quick scene. The antagonist himself, played by a very intimidating Ken Quitugua, has very unclear motives. He’s supposed to be a nearly invincible threat, yet the climactic rooftop fight is the second time we really get to see him and was little more than the battle itself. It left a single scene in which we learned the backstory and goals from the character himself, and learning he is using kung fu without honor and was also given a branded mark by Sifu Cheung is about as much as we’re given in that department. I also wish that the film gave more space and meaningfulness to female characters. Danny’s ex-wife Caryn, played by Jae Suh Park, is the only prominent woman in the film, and her role is somewhat as a secondary antagonist, acting as a much stricter parent figure than Danny.
Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Paper Tigers. Despite the genre pushing the story and characters towards Asian stereotypes, the film never feels like it goes past that line without intention. It also goes beyond a simple redemption flick, pointing out anti-Black racism within the Asian American community, showing the importance of holding onto cultural history, and dealing with serious issues of parenting and responsibility. I was smiling throughout the entire final fight sequence, in part due to the familiar Seattle skyline in the background, but mostly because it was good to just watch a well-choreographed and fight sequence. The Disciple may not have landed a final blow onto Danny, but Bao Tran definitely hit the mark with this film.
Re-imagining the presence and purpose of martial arts in The Paper Tigers
Guest post by Chloe Chow, student at Stanford University
The Paper Tigers highlighted the importance of cultural connection to establish the sense of self within the Asian American paradox. Danny’s resilience at the beginning of the movie inspired a certain degree of hope for accomplishment through something that was culture centric, yet his descent into capitalism and becoming an insurance salesman represented the damaging effect of the American Dream. I appreciated how, unlike other films centered around martial arts, Danny’s character, as well as Hing and Jim’s, created dimension beyond just their gong fu hobby. The addition of the struggle of divorce, child custody, physical disability (in Hing’s case), and the work-life balance helped Danny fit into what is seen as an American experience, not one that is dictated by his Asian identity. This dimensionality was valuable because it broke away from other films such as Enter the Dragon, Ip Man, and more, which relies on martial arts as a defining factor of character development and significance within an “Asian” narrative. Historically, martial arts-centered films can be tokenizing of the culture itself, but The Paper Tigers took care to ensure that personality exploration dove into the everyday intricacies in addition to the cultural linkage of gong fu.
The Paper Tigers also touched on the racial triangulation relationship in regards to the white community, the Asian American community, and the Black community when it comes to race relations within America. The scene where one of the younger Asian “punks” called Jim the n-word shocked me because of the mindless use of the term with no regards to how the derogatory word would reference and insult Jim’s racial identity. It reminded me of how sometimes minorities aren’t as aware of how “normalized” cultural practices are actually harmful to minorities that aren’t themselves. It also reminded me of how cross-ethnic education is important to ensure equal treatment, at least among minorities, that can eventually expand to overcome white supremacy. This scene was reminiscent of how the model minority myth shapes Asian Americans as explicitly non-Black. White supremacy is founded and reinforced by how inherently racist systems and institutions pit minorities against one another to maintain tension that distracts from the original issue at hand. When minorities bond together, they become the majority, and that it something that will ultimately demolish white supremacy. That is why institutions and systems always attempt to create more and more rifts between communities and normalize offenses that prevent cross-ethnic and cross-racial solidarity.
The setting of Seattle, WA was touching to me, a resident of Seattle, because of the international district in which a lot of shots were set. It is true that there is an abundance of diversity that thrives in the international district and where a lot of people come to be exposed to cultural practices, such as gong fu. I personally grew up with the impression that the international district would be the only place in which I could find a resonant community that echoed my upbringing and impressions of culture outside of the largely white suburb that I lived in. Thus, it was disturbing to see the white character, Carter, claim ownership over gong fu and try to educate other Asians on it. It is not exactly the equivalent of colonization since there is no erasure of culture and he had the intention of sharing it rather than tearing it down. However, having an outsider gatekeep a cultural practice did not sit right with me. The part of the movie where he criticizes Westerners for their colonizing practices made me cringe because he was mildly doing the same with the gong fu school and dishonoring the wishes of the late shi fu.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Paper Tigers for its closeness to home in both setting and narrative. While I do feel like Danny’s wife’s character could have been strengthened to add more female empowerment to the narrative and there could have been more dimensionality to the assassin, this film was a solid step towards representations of films that have a martial arts focus but are not martial arts centric. While it is good to be including cultural practices, such as gong fu, that point to tokens that we Asian Americans carry over from our heritage, such practices should not be character-defining traits since the Asian American experience extends far beyond that. Seeing Danny betray his own self-made goals of going to a gong fu tournament and falling back into what is characterized as a steady career showcases the flaws of minorities following what white people define as “successful”. I hope that The Paper Tigers could have a sequel to show the consequential events of Danny’s return to self-actualization and how that affects his perspective on the model minority myth as well as his “destiny” as a protegee of the gong fu school.