The Paper Tigers: Against all odds

The journey of making The Paper Tigers was a decade-long game of numbers and probability. As a producer, every aspect of your production is dissected — budget, IMDb filmography, cast star rankings, target audience data, sales projections, and much more.

Data point after data point was stacked for or against our project, and we navigated through each one until we could focus on a single problem at a time. We are a stubborn bunch, and we got through it all while staying true to who we are.

A bunch of friends making a kung fu movie.

See also: The Paper Tigers: Earning Our Stripes

Finishing the film amid a pandemic

In November 2019, my first feature film, The Paper Tigers, had just wrapped filming. We were knee-deep in editing and arranging post-production work in Vancouver BC, just a couple of hours north of Seattle where I live. 

And then 2020 happened.

Alain Uy in The Paper Tigers
Alain Uy gets into the zone in The Paper Tigers. Photo Credit: Al’n Duong

We had just delivered 40 terabytes’ worth of raw footage to Canada when we received news that the looming pandemic had closed the US-Canada border. The coronavirus was surging across the country with little to no public knowledge of what the virus was and how it affected humans. It was peak “Kung Flu” and “China Virus,” divisive terms coined by the then-president of the United States that resulted in fanning the flames of hatred towards not just the Chinese, but anyone who looked Asian as well. 

The film was 95% edited at this point, leaving gaps for “B-roll,”or supplemental footage that complements the primary photography. In our case, we needed miscellaneous shots of empty streets and a dark cityscape. With the city of Seattle beginning to lock down, we found the perfect opportunity to film the eerily quiet streets of Chinatown. Our footage shows boarded up businesses and recently vandalized Chinese restaurants. 

The vibrancy of the city was gone. 

Finishing a film mid-pandemic proved to be uncharted territory, especially when the post-production team was in another country. In pre-COVID times, one would traditionally be in the same room as the colorist, sound designer, or composer to give real time feedback. In our case, we had to make do with virtual feedback sessions, text messages, and a billion emails back and forth.

lead actors of The Paper Tigers at premiere
Left to right: Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Jae Suh Park, Alain Uy, and Ron Yuan at The Paper Tigers Premiere at Howard Hughes Cinamark 18 on Saturday May 8, 2021. Photo credit: Steven Lam.

The final result was a 110-minute film with plenty of action and much more heart. The level of talent we were able to bring in on our shoestring budget blew my mind. The friendship you see with the leading trio of the Three Tigers — actors Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins — was real behind the scenes. They had a real bond off and on set that set the tone for the film. I had never worked with child actors before, but actor Joziah Lagonoy was probably the most mature and professional person on set. And what can I say about Matt Page, aka Carter? If you’ve watched the movie, you can imagine how hard it was to keep from laughing out loud during a take.

See also: The Paper Tigers: A vision worth fighting for

A premiere unlike any other

There’s nothing like the theatrical experience.

Throughout the lifespan of cinema, we’ve seen technological advancements in film supposedly threaten the actual existence of the theatre experience or the film industry in general. With the invention of sound, technicolor, 3D, and streaming platforms, humans like to predict the fall of cinema — like they predict the end of the world. What the pandemic has taught us is that the theatre experience is much more than just watching a film on the big screen.

Theatre is a shared human experience that cannot be replaced.

Cast of The Paper Tigers at Premiere
Entire cast of The Paper Tigers at the premiere at Howard Hughes Cinamark 18. Photo credit: Steven Lam.

COVID-19 robbed us of our opportunity to have a proper world premiere. In September 2020, we had a virtual world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, a world renowned festival for genre films, followed by our Asia premiere at Busan International Film Festival. These are all prestigious film festivals to be at, and we were ecstatic to be official selections. But there was no energy in the festivities. Instead of meeting face-to-face with another human being, we were taking meetings with the several megapixels of an aged MacBook or the bandwidth of subpar WiFi.

On the night of May 6, 2021, I was finally able to watch The Paper Tigers for the first time in a theatre at 50% capacity (due to COVID regulations), with an audience of 180. The sound of people adjusting in their seats in anticipation of the movie, the unexpected laughs, the subtle sniffle from an emotional scene, the shock and awes… all were a reminder of why I fell in love with film. 

The Paper Tigers by the numbers

The film industry is a risk-averse business. Studios have data telling them that sequels and reboots of established intellectual properties are the guaranteed money makers. Audiences already exist for them, and the demand for the next superhero/video game movie is insatiable. It’s a well-oiled machine. 

Producers and director of The Paper Tigers at premiere
Producers and director of The Paper Tigers at the premiere at Howard Hughes Cinamark 18. Photo credit: Steven Lam.

Based on that same data, The Paper Tigers is a high-risk production. First-time feature film director, producers, action designer, director of photography — all the way down the credits were a bunch of supposed amateurs. Our entire leading cast comprised people of color who rarely get leading roles in films. We were neither a video game movie nor a comic book adaptation. Why make a kung fu movie without Jackie Chan? Yes, that question actually did come up.

Today, these are the numbers we are focusing on.

One hundred.

The Paper Tigers is currently 100% Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is now a proven critical success with a high audience score, and has earned rave reviews from critics.

Ten.

In honor of Asian Heritage Month, Rotten Tomatoes released their 65 Best Asian American movies of all-time, and The Paper Tigers is ranked at #10. Top TEN! I catch myself reloading the page just in case they had made a mistake, but it’s really there.

Five.

A week after opening night, we are ranked as high as number #5 on the Apple iTunes charts for most digital rentals and purchases.

Ron Yuan, Alain Uy, Mykel Shannon Jenkins
Ron Yuan, Alain Uy, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins accept any challenges that come their way. Photo credit: Al’n Duong

If we continue to hide behind numbers to tell us what not to pursue, we will miss great opportunities. The data points that truly mattered, which the studios ignored, were the near 15 years we collectively have worked together. Our core team has contributed to some of the biggest movies and shows in Hollywood, like Jojo Rabbit, Westworld, Cobra Kai, and The Mandalorian

This may be our first time producing a feature film, but we are certainly no strangers to making movies.

Where we go from here

I’d be lying if I said our goal was to be among the best Asian American films of all time. Action comedies with fart jokes are usually looked down upon, but we took great pride in telling an authentic story about the martial arts culture of Seattle. We purposely did not exoticise our Asianness by over explaining certain terms or traditions. Our existence as a film is a big enough statement. 

As we ride towards the horizon, still optimistic and a bit more calloused, we’re still the same stubborn kids running around with a camera.

A bunch of friends making a kung fu movie.


See also the beginning of the journey:

Click here for more information on how to watch The Paper Tigers.

Header image submitted by Al’n Duong.

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