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Film Review: Kung Fu and Comedy Collide in “The Paper Tigers,” a Story with Good Intentions, but a Mixed-Up Narrative Structure

Written by: Adam Vaughn | August 31st, 2020

Film poster: “The Paper Tigers”

The Paper Tigers (Tran Quoc Bao, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Having heard that a new kung fu comedy was coming out, I immediately became excited about the endless possibilities. The concept immediately struck me as one that could deliver the promise of both intense and glorifying kung fu action and timely and relatable humor. While The Paper Tigers does deliver both genre elements consistently, the  result is a story that, while decent, shifts its tone too often to stay coherent from start to finish.

The Paper Tigers (Tran Quoc Bao’s debut feature film) tells the tale of three legendary kung fu disciples, longtime friends grown apart. When the three fighters, now “old” and out of their prime, find out that their sensei has been murdered in combat, they must work out the kinks (and back-cracks) in their martial-arts skills to avenge their fallen master. The three “old-tie” fighters, crafted by interesting and honest performances from Alain Uy, Ron Yuan and Mykel Shannon Jenkins, never quite get their moments to shine. Rather, the film banks on its predictable plot to carry it with numerous jokes and punchlines, some of which miss the mark on comedic timing. Still, the story opens with a feeling of intensity and violence, setting up the heroes to rise up and avenge their fallen sensei in an epic way.

From L:R – Ron Yuan, Alain Uy and Mykel Shannon Jenkins
in a scene from Tran Quoc Bao’s THE PAPER TIGERS

As The Paper Tigers progresses, however, director Tran doesn’t seem to find a healthy balance of the various moods of the piece, waffling between funniness, intensity, and heart-warming that at times is too complicated. At one moment the film focuses in on the main story, the mystery of who killed sensei and the thrill of watching the three heroes setting out to battle, and in another moment it tears down the action to deliver comedy that more embarrasses the heroes than does them credit, and at moments Danny (Uy) struggles to keep a divorce from alienating him from his son (Joziah Lagonoy). In the end, the film cannot commit to one solid story to move forward, but emphasizes various ideas as of equal importance, never taking one storyline to its full potential.

All the same, the overall story from beginning to end makes it an enjoyable and entertaining experience, and a worthwhile one at that. It would be interesting, however, to see The Paper Tigers either fully embody its action, letting some of repetitious comedy by the wayside, or transform into an “all out comedy” and push the boundaries of ridiculousness. As is, the film has two feet over the line between action and comedy, unsure of which one it wants to be by its conclusion.

[The Paper Tigers premiered August 30, 2020, at the Fantasia Film Festival, and has its encore screening on September 1, at 5:30pm EST.]


Adam Vaughn is a graduate of the Film & Moving Image program at Stevenson University, with a focus in Cinematography and Production. He also has a minor in Theater and Media Performance. Adam works as a freelance photographer and videographer, focusing his craft on creating compelling photographic and cinematic imagery. Adam is excited to join the Film Festival Today team and explore the world of cinema and visual arts.

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