The Paper Tigers

CW-Top: Gui Da Silva, Greene Yoshi Sudarso, Peter Sudarso, Roger Yuan

An independent kung fu film about three guys who are one kick away from pulling their hamstrings

In making his martial arts film The Paper Tigers, Vietnamese- American writer/director/editor Tran Quoc Bao is thinking about more than just who punches who. The film’s fighters are in the midst of aging and the physical decline that comes with it. Some are fighting custody battles. They are all called back into the fray to fight a challenger. There’s martial arts, tightly choreographed fight scenes, the bread and butter of a kung fu movie. The film is and is not a kung fu movie.

Martial arts cinema often falls victim to what Bao calls “mindlessness” that he wanted to stay away from. Speaking about the film in December, he said a lodestar for him in making it has been quirky zombie-cum-comedy feature Shaun of the Dead. This movie is billed as a zombie film, but “it was so much more than that,” Bao asserted. “It was a rom-com-zombie movie. That’s what we want to do making The Paper Tigers (”

“We want to go above and beyond that as well with humor and art,” he added. The seriousness and the realness of the drama is nested within a movie that is brashly and at times bodily humorous. The trailer for the movie features an overserious white man who fights the protagonists wearing a traditional martial arts battle uniform and is summarily, deliciously stomped.

Gui Da Silva-Greene, Peter Sudarso, Danny Yoshi Sudarso

Having just finished a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, Bao is preparing to begin shooting the film in the spring. Bao’s decade in film includes credits as an actor as well as an editor of a pair of Vietnamese films. The Paper Tigers is his directorial debut. Keeping the film in the US makes him an exception among a certain segment of Vietnamese-American filmmakers. Bao said there’s a large interest in Viet Kieu directors and producers in making films in Vietnam due in no small part to the reduced cost of doing business in this country. A Vietnamese-American filmmaker in Vietnam would also be exempted from what he calls the “glass ceiling” or what other (perhaps a bit problematically) might call the “bamboo ceiling,” the artificial barrier imposed by (white) critics and other actors who officiate creative work in some way. Work by Asians is judged differently abroad, Bao said, and what they’re expected or allowed to make hews to these restrictions.

Yet, for Bao, the film he’s making “is an immigrant American story. It’s … being a fish out of water,” he said. “I’m a filmmaker, I want to go where the story makes the most sense.“ For a couple of his projects, the answer to that question was Vietnam. Bao has previously worked on Trung So (English translation: “win the lottery”), a Vietnamese comedy centering around a winning lottery ticket and the ticket seller who comes in possession of its fortune, and Bui Doi Cho Lon (English translation: “Cho Lon gangs”), a film Bao describes as a Gangs of New York-style film set in a neighborhood home to Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese community. The film’s title contains the name of the neighborhood, “Cho Lon” (English translation: “large market”).

An incomplete version of the second film is circulating the internet in lieu of the finished product, which was grounded days before its slated theatrical release in 2013 due to censors. They objected to the film’s violent portrayal of the city. Bao said they have since used it as grounds to prohibit the release of the final film either in Vietnam or abroad exercising their authority to regulate exports of materials created in the country. “I thought it was fine,” Bao said. He said he hoped the film’s complications would be resolved soon to show the proper release.

Left: Ken Quitugua, Right: Bao Tran

Setting aside the complications around that particular film, Bao said he’d welcome an opportunity to work in Vietnam again, but the country wasn’t a fit sense for The Paper Tigers, citing the film’s willingness to engage elements that aren’t typical to the martial arts genre, like leading black actors and hip hop. The film is a closer reflection of Bao’s cultural identity. A US-born child of Vietnamese immigrants, Bao first started studying martial arts not out of some longstanding cultural veneration of the sport, but because his parents wanted him to get out of the house and stop watching so much TV.

Bao grew to develop a long relationship with martial arts and briefly trained under a fighter coached by icon Bruce Lee. Bao is deeply Americanized and as a novice fighter he may have looked closer to the fighter in his short film The Challenger, a young man in Vans and jeans. The Paper Tigers was teased conceptually in this short film. Citing the controversy that Bruce Lee incited in training students of all races and ethnicities— among his first students were black and First Nations fighters—Bao opined that diversity is deeper to the tradition of martial arts than what the popular film representations might lead one to believe.

A good story from whoever is at the heart of Bao’s interests artistically. Aside from Shaun of the Dead, he cited the animated feature Up, specifically the film’s now-famous intro sequence, as a work he regarded highly. “Those first 10 minutes of Up? One of the best segments in cinema,” Bao said. Specifically, what he extolled about these works was their gift in making their rich messages understood. The challenge is higher in martial arts films and moving beyond just filming a fistfight. “That’s very hard,” Bao said. “That takes a lot of skill, and that’s what we want to do.”

The genre in some ways resists the work Bao is undertaking in The Paper Tigers, but he sees the film as a statement: “This is our flag in the ground.”

Images by Beimo Films

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