[Fantasia 2020] THE PAPER TIGERS -- A Funny, Action-Packed, and Heartfelt Throwback to Kung Fu Classics
Review by Sean Boelman
There is a generation of people who grew up after the heyday of the great martial arts movies and yet still grew up watching them. Tran Quoc Bao’s kung fu comedy The Paper Tigers is a wonderful tribute to said people, a nostalgic and fun action-comedy that still manages to pack quite the emotional punch.
The film follows three childhood friends and former kung fu prodigies who reunite after their master is mysteriously killed, trying to find the person that killed him. Blending elements of a comedy about growing old and an action-mystery, Tran’s script is both reminiscent of the greats of the genre while still being immensely satisfying in its own right.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this movie is that its central mystery is surprisingly unpredictable. Even though it’s clear from the beginning what the resolution is going to be, Tran uses just enough red herrings in a way that keeps the audience invested. It’s not about whether or not the eponymous trio will solve the mystery — it’s how they will solve it.
Also impressive are the kung fu fight sequences, with some moments of flair thrown in from other martial arts for good measure. As the movie gets going, there’s more of a comedic nature to the fights, but when it really shines is when Tran goes all-in on the choreography and delivers some beautifully-shot duels.
That said, even though this is first and foremost an action comedy, there is also a significant human element to it. The main subplot explores the protagonist’s desire to be a good father to his own son, at the same time he is dealing with the loss of his own father figure. It’s an interesting parallelism that makes the movie quite compelling.
It would have been nice had the other two members of the trio had more substantial roles, but they ultimately resort to being little more than sidekicks. Even the friendship between the three characters doesn’t play too big of a role in the narrative, as this is very much the protagonist’s story and the others are just along for the ride.
That said, all three lead actors are great. Alain Uy is lovably awkward for much of the film before coming into his own as a charismatic leader for the group. Ron Yuan is hilarious in his part, having some great physical comedy scenes. And even though he is a tad underused, Mykel Shannon Jenkins rounds out the trio well.
The Paper Tigers is definitely a cult classic in the making, a movie that was undoubtedly made by a fan of the genre for fans. It’s an infectiously charming and well-rounded film, offering everything that a great martial arts movie should have.
The Paper Tigers screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs August 20-September 2.