“The Paper Tigers” is more than just another dramatic kung fu and martial arts movie with action-packed fight sequences. It is a feel-good and heartwarming story about brotherhood, perseverance, and building community.
Written and directed by Bao Tran, the movie is a modern take on the avenge-my-master-after his-death storyline. As teenagers, Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) were kung fu disciples that were unstoppable. They picked and won fights with kung fu rivals and earned respect along the way. But that was then and now is 25 years later. Each of them grew into a shadow of their teenage selves. Each is a middle-aged man mired in a crisis or two, seemingly one kick away from pulling a hamstring and well-removed from each others’ lives.
But when their old master is murdered, the trio reunites to avenge their sifu and rekindle their fighting spirits.
Cold Tea Collective sat down with Tran and main cast members Alain Uy and Mykel Shannon Jenkins to capture some personal thoughts and memorable moments about the film.
Following a Vision
To differentiate this film from other kung fu movies, Tran and the producers wanted to create and share something that was an honest reflection of their own personal experiences — growing up practicing martial arts with other classmates of colour, and portraying Asian Americans without accents or a dark, intimate past.
“I think it’s the responsibility of every artist to be serious about the work and not take for granted any opportunity that they have,” he advised.
For other creative people of colour (POC) out there, Tran shares the importance of following your vision through to the end.
“It is important because I think it’s ultimately being able to have your voice, and as a storyteller, be able to express your story and your history to the world,” said Tran.
Casting for Actors with a Wide Net
The determination to maintain a leading cast led by POC came with its unique challenges.
In the pre-production and pitch phases with studios, the creators fielded questions that challenged the notion from the get go. Who’s in it? Who’s on the poster?
There were studios that expressed high levels of interest in the film, but ultimately Tran and the producers turned down any offers or interests from studios because they were adamant about their vision to cast POC in the leading roles. In one instance, they even turned down a $4 million deal — because studios wanted to change the lead role to a white person instead of someone of Asian descent.
“The battle to even retain your vision and retain the integrity of your casting is always a conversation when you’re financing a film,” says Tran.
We also asked Uy and Jenkins to share what drew them to the parts of Danny and Jim. After reading the script and understanding the heart behind Tran’s vision, they couldn’t help but try to fight for the parts.
“It’s not often you get a chance to audition for a piece that’s the lead, or one of the leads, in the film,” Uy said.
As a journeyman actor coming into this project, he acknowledged the role could have been given to other actors with a stronger resumé or presence.
“It was a combination of things that was transpiring for me personally that allowed me to connect with the character in a way that I felt rang true.”
Jenkins felt similarly.
“I wanted him to feel completely confident that if his vision changed overnight, I’m still Jim.”
Tran’s trust in the cast empowered them to engage in the script, engage in the story, and interrogate it. The entire process organically created a comradery between the dynamic trio — a testament to the chemistry we see on screen.
The Most Memorable Moments on Set
For Uy, the most memorable moment on set came when they started doing the fight sequences, while Jenkins reminisced about the close bond they built the moment they stepped on set for their first improv session. It’s something that left a strong impression for Jenkins as an actor.
“This movie exists on the plane it does because the captain driving the plane allowed us to play without seatbelts,” Jenkins said.
Tran created a trusting environment for the cast to freely work and express themselves. He extends his utmost gratitude to the producers for understanding and respecting the process for him to create the space for the actors.
Tran explains that producing is like laying down the track in front of a moving train.
“The train doesn’t know or doesn’t care what’s in front of it. It just keeps moving. And that’s movie production.”
What This Movie Represents in 2021
When it comes to how Asian American and POC representation is evolving in film, the gentlemen are encouraged knowing there are a plethora of creatives out there who are going to learn from this story.
Kung fu films have come a long way from blockbuster hits led by white actors. One need only to look at films like “The Paper Tigers” or “Mortal Kombat” to see a more diverse cast than the movies of yester-year like “Bloodsport” or “The Forbidden Kingdom.” It’s a step in the right direction for diversity in entertainment and equity across broader popular culture.
“When you see more Baos, more people like me, more women, you know it’s happening,” said Jenkins. “I’m encouraged by people. When you see how many people come out to stop Asian hate. When you see how many people come out for one Black man’s life. That didn’t happen 10 years ago, that wouldn’t happen.”
Tran never thought they would be releasing a film in the middle of a pandemic, let alone at a time where there’s a racial reckoning happening in more ways than one. When he began writing this film, it was about 10 years ago before either “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Black Panther” became points of proof for the entertainment industry. Now that the film is set to release, Tran looks back on his work to make that vision a reality.
“At the end of the day, you know, if it’s worth hearing, it’s worth fighting for and speaking in,” he said.
“The Paper Tigers” is set to release in select theaters and on digital on May 7.
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