Time to fill in a few more details of my past that I have hinted at in other reviews, namely my experience with kung fu. After I completed my undergraduate studies, I moved back to Illinois to live with my aunt and await acceptance into the schools there to which I applied. While up there, I found a kung fu school in Aurora, Illinois, and started taking lessons. As somebody who had listened to Wu Tang throughout my high school and college years, the notion of learning the original martial art appealed to me on many levels. I fear I am not yet conveying the snobbery I had towards other forms of fisticuffs. Kung fu, being the style upon which all others are based, always seemed cooler. Given my appreciation for history, philosophy, and Star Wars, its practitioners had the air of Jedi Knights. While enrolled, we often joked about the superiority of our style versus karate or, God forbid, taekwondo. These notions were put to the test when our school entered a local martial arts tournament, and we took home many of the trophies. Since that time, I have remained rather keen on kung fu, even if I have not kept up with it. I believe much of this will appear familiar as you read this review of Paper Tigers (2020).
Somewhere in a dark alleyway, Paper Tigers begins with a duel between an aged man and a younger person, resulting in the older person’s death. The more seasoned fellow is Cheung (Roger Yuan). Years ago, he had taught three young men in his garage the secrets of his brand of kung fu. As they grew up, they turned into street fighting prodigies. Through home videos they took of their various fights, we see them taking on and defeating every opponent. Martial arts made them brothers, but somewhere along the line they drifted apart. They also stopped practicing the skills that they had spent so much time perfecting. What begins to bring them back together is the death of Sifu Cheung. The first of the three we meet is their nominal leader, Danny (Alain Uy). He is picking up his son, Ed (Joziah Lagonoy), from his mother, Caryn (Jae Suh Park), from whom he is divorced. Though Danny promises Ed a fun day, Danny gets called into work and makes his son sit in the office. When Danny goes to drop off Ed, he makes the kid promise to lie to his mother about what he did because he wants it to make it seem like he is being a good dad. It is after he gets home that his old friend Hing (Ron Yuan) arrives with the news of Sifu Cheung’s death. This information also means that Danny must put aside his differences with Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), who is still bitter with Danny for leaving him behind when they went to Japan together years previously. Still, Sifu Cheung’s passing is enough for the moment. The circumstances surrounding his demise also strike them as suspect. The official report is a heart attack, but he was found in the alleyway behind a restaurant. And aside from a smoking habit, there is no reason to believe that he was susceptible to such an event. Hence, Danny, Hing, and Jim decide to begin investigating the matter. Their first suspects are a group of young kung fu punks, for lack of a better term, who came to Sifu Cheung’s funeral and did not pay the proper respects. When they go to confront the young men, it is then that you get to see how rusty they are with their old martial arts skills. Danny is reluctant to fight under any circumstances, Hing has a ruined knee from a work accident and is overweight, and Jim has been focusing more on jiu jitsu. They are able to overcome their opponents, but only with difficulty. In doing so, they discover that they did not kill Sifu Cheung. The three brothers then go to confront Carter (Matthew Page), the one who encouraged them to seek out the three young men. Carter is an old acquaintance of theirs, somebody they had fought many times in their more rambunctious years, and he still holds a grudge. Yet, when his own sifu, Wong (Raymond Ma), admonishes him for his behavior, Carter reveals that there is someone out there of which they are afraid. This is Zhen Fan (Ken Quitugua), a strong new student that Sifu Cheung had taken on late in life despite saying that he would not do so after teaching Danny and his friends. Sifu Cheung had taken his tutelage a step further, instructing Zhen Fan in how to deliver a blow that leads to the death of whoever receives it. Zhen Fan is younger, stronger, and faster, and motivates Danny to try to get back in shape, particularly after Hing attempts to take on Zhen Fan alone and is seriously hurt in the process. When it is finally time for Danny to face Zhen Fan, Danny is barely able to keep up with the lightning kicks and punches. Still, his experience ends up winning the day. The journey of reconnecting with his past also reminds him of all the life lessons he had received from Sifu Cheung, which he goes on to apply to being a better father.
The first thing I said after finishing Paper Tigers was, well, that was kind of different. If you are familiar with this movie, which is on Netflix, you will know that one problem with it is the people they chose to play the younger versions of the main characters. They look nothing alike. That is my only real complaint about the film. Otherwise, I greatly appreciated Danny. As I have gotten older and grown in my Faith, despite not practicing kung fu in a while, I have noticed that I feel less inclined to fight with anyone. The reason people engage in combat of any kind is to prove to themselves and others their toughness. To test their mettle, in other words, as the old saying goes. When confronted with situations that Danny used to solve with his fists, his first instinct as a seasoned adult is to just walk away. I am glad to say that is a lesson Danny instills in Ed. At the same time, how does one reconcile the ability to beat up another with the idea of turning the other cheek, or being the bigger man as Danny puts it? Sifu Cheung sums it up with the word honor. Honor is something talked about extensively in the Bible, but not usually in connection to martial arts. Sifu Cheung says that kung fu without honor is just fighting. That is a lesson that Danny and his friends forgot at an early age, and it is taken to the extreme by Zhen Fan. When two people spar simply for the purpose of testing their skills against one another, there is nothing dishonorable with such a contest. When your sole purpose is to humiliate your opponent, that is when the fight becomes something tainted. The understanding of things in this manner is the start of virtue, and I credit the film for making this point. Specifically, it says that when a man’s virtue exceeds his talent, he becomes the bigger man. With this, a person does not need to fight anyone. It might seem strange to say, but Jesus embodied these ideals. An example of this principle in action is when Pontius Pilate asks the condemned Jesus if He is a king. The Messiah does not affirm it directly, but says that if He were His attendants would be storming the gates to release Him. What He does comment on directly is that His authority comes from above, and it makes Him the bigger man in every sense of the word.
It is good to see Danny reminded of these lessons in Paper Tigers, though it makes the film seem to be a bit more serious in tone than it is, actually. It is a light-hearted martial arts movie with comedic tones. It is not your typical film as such, and the only one I can compare it to is Shaolin Soccer (2001). I enjoyed it, whatever it is, and I think you would too if you gave it a chance.