Comedy and kung-fu. It’s not a mixture that one sees often, though super streamer Netflix hopes its new release will be the start of something good. The Paper Tigers is a 2020 martial arts comedy that has found a home on Netflix after a decade of development, shopping, heartbreak, and the ultimate determination to stick to one’s guns.
The Paper Tigers follows three childhood friends and kung-fu prodigies, Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), who have turned into middle-aged, washed-up men. The trio must come together when their master is murdered. The men who, as seen by a lengthy montage, had a ton of talent as teenagers, are now out of shape, dealing with being dads and their dead-end jobs, and must overcome old grudges to avenge their master’s death.
In The Paper Tigers, their lives lingering in meaningless malaise, the three, once called the “three tigers” attempt to find common ground as they search for their master’s killer. Danny has grown into an obnoxious divorcee who would rather handle business calls than interact with his son. Hing has turned into an overweight, middle-aged man. Jim is the only one of the three who has kept his physical appearance, but he has completely forgotten the lessons his master taught them.
As expected, The Paper Tigers brings our three together slowly, as they begin to work out the kinks of aging as well as attempting to fix relationships. There is plenty of humor in The Paper Tigers and the film ratchets up the humor when the “three tigers” come face-to-face with their childhood rival, Carter (Matthew Page), who is seen time and time again getting his ass kicked during the film’s initial montage.
But The Paper Tigers focuses on the three and how they go about balancing their daily lives and relationships while not only trying to find their master’s killer but dealing with how their lives have turned out after such a promising childhood. It sounds deep, and at times it is, but the humor and martial arts action keep the film well-balanced, setting up a rousing conclusion with a nighttime roof-top battle.
While the story on the screen is a good one, as the critical reviews show, the story of how director/writer Bao Tran got the film to the screen is an even better one. It can be described in one word – determination.
Tran wrote a one-page treatment for what would become The Paper Tigers ten years ago. This is also when began to shop it and garner interest in his idea. Studios and distributors wanted what he had, but Tran was about to run into rude awakening after rude awakening. Hollywood made the rules and if he wanted to play the game, he was expected to follow them.
This is where “whitewashing” came into play. “We knew it was going to come and we knew that race bending or whitewashing was going to be a challenge,” says Bao via Bad Feeling Magazine. “But, you know, it was clear for us — that’s not what we want to do.”
Bao Tran explained via The Daily Beast what Hollywood was looking for, “A production company once told us, “Look, if you bring on Bruce Willis, not only will your movie get sold right away, we can get you a $4 million budget easy. Or hey, how about you write a role for Nicolas Cage?” Now, I love Die Hard and Raising Arizona as much as the next guy, but we’re almost certain none of them actually read our script.”
What eventually convinced Tran to stick to his The Paper Tigers guns was a handwritten note he received from his aunts while he was in the process of trying to raise money for the film through a Kickstarter campaign. In the envelope with the letter, his aunt’s stuffed $300 to go toward his film. The note read: “Bao, we hope this will help you achieve your dream. You represent the generations of Vietnamese who sought refuge and have passed safely through the golden gate of America.” The words that got him were, “you represent…”
Feeling the weight of ancestors and the desire not to conform to Hollywood’s old ways, Tran continued on with his Kickstarter campaign. It proved fruitful as Tran and company were able to raise the necessary funds to shoot his The Paper Tigers.
Now, the critically acclaimed The Paper Tigers is available for the world to see. Jeffrey Anderson of Common Sense Media sums up Tran’s film wonderfully by saying, “Ragtag to the point of almost feeling homemade, this cheerful, lovable action-comedy edges close to creaky martial arts and “old guy” movie cliches but evades them with sheer spirit and gumption.” How can you not want to see this? The Paper Tigers is now available on Netflix. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Fun for all.