SDAFF 2020: Middle Aged Kung Fu – ‘The Paper Tigers’ Reviewed

by Gary Catig

For those who grew up watching imported kung fu films during weekend afternoons on TV or enjoyed American takes on the genre such as The Karate Kid and The Last Dragon, The Paper Tigers might be for you. It captures the same energy combining beautifully choreographed fight sequences and fun comedy with moments of self-reflection and regret. As the movie makes its way through the festival circuit, was able to screen it during the San Diego Asian Film Fest.
Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) were childhood friends and martial art prodigies. As happens when growing older, they became more involved in their own lives and grew apart. The trio are suddenly thrust back together years later when their sifu is mysteriously murdered and they search for the culprit to avenge their master’s death. During their investigation they encounter colorful characters including old rivals, social media savvy kung fu orphans and a formidable and deadly foe.
The Paper Tigers draws upon familiar tropes found in classic karate flicks such as the pursuit of vengeance and honor, death touches, and clan battles of supremacy. However, placing the setting in the modern day with middle-aged protagonists provides a fresh new spin. Having older heroes brings more weight to the contemplative moments of lost time with the people you love and of the remorse of poor choices.
The over the hill aspect also plays well with the laughs. The ribbing and insults Danny, Hing and Jim receive as they brawl their way through every lead in their investigation is hilarious. There is plenty of physical comedy too as they deal with their bodies’ limitations and resorting to unconventional moves in their old-man bag of tricks to win their duels. It was good to see the humorous side of Yuan’s acting and Matthew Page, who plays an old rival named Carter, also has an entertaining supporting role.

That’s not to say the action sequences are not well done. They are exciting and realistic looking not relying on the superhuman wire work found in some marital arts films. The cast includes action and stunt work veterans  to execute fast paced, aesthetically pleasing fight scenes (Yuan and Jenkins have done their share of projects). In addition, the different urban locales help set the tone and produce more character for each skirmish.
Uy is a good fit for present Danny with his unassuming stature and life as a workaholic insurance salesman driving a minivan. Even though he may not share the martial arts resumé as his costars, he holds his own as a kung fu master convincingly showing why he was the top disciple. (On a side note, I feel he could have seen more action in Helstrom considering his Hollywood karate skills) But he really shines in the dramatic moments hitting the emotional beats particularly in his solemn and candid phone call to his family before the big showdown.
Quoc Bao Tran impresses with his first feature film as writer and director. The Paper Tigers recreates the fun and feel of classic martial arts films in a modern-day story. It is an amusing blend of action and comedy that tackles the insecurities and limitations of growing older and the joy of reconnecting with lost friends.

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