If you’ve ever been a part of a team in some capacity, but are now no longer close with many of those individuals, you’ll probably understand the spirit of Bao Tran’s feature debut The Paper Tigers. You’ve probably had those dinners, anniversary get togethers, reunions, where the drinks flow and so do the laughs. Just like old time. And yet, there’s a melancholy behind these nights; a recognition that things can truly never be the same.
The Paper Tigers expertly crafts the melancholy of passing time into a beautifully felt feature film. Time has turned the titular tigers into paper ones. Hing (Ron Yuan) has gained weight as rapidly as he’s lost his hair, Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is more entuned with Brazilian Ju Jitsu than any other form of martial arts, and Danny (Alain Uy) has turned from feared fighter to overwhelmed father. When their Shifu Master Cheung (Roger Yuan) dies, the tigers must solve and possibly avenge his death. To do so, they will have to reconcile with regret, and truly being to understand what honor means.
Tran’s foremost success comes in the form of their crafted characters. For all of the silly, Uncle Drew, “we don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing,” energy that permeates every frame of this film, you genuinely want the tigers to succeed. Every fight scene becomes gripping cinema, because you somehow wind up with a vested interest in the tigers.
This is very much still a debut feature. The visual could use some spicing up (the lighting is pointedly drab). Some of the humor doesn’t land. But Tran clearly understands story, character, and redemption, all of which will likely serve them well throughout their career. The punch this film packs is anything but hollow.