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As a kid Tran Quoc Bao made backyard Jackie Chan videos that Corey Yuen helped edit. Bruce Lee inspired his martial arts tribute film The Paper Tigers

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 17/10/2020 Richard James Havis
Alain Uy sitting on a table: Joziah Lagonoy and Alain Uy in a still from The Paper Tigers, a film directed by Vietnamese-American Tran Quoc Bao that borrows themes from classic Hong Kong martial arts movies and takes inspiration from Bruce Lee, who lived in Seattle, where the film is set and where the director grew up. Photo: Alwin Szeto Joziah Lagonoy and Alain Uy in a still from The Paper Tigers, a film directed by Vietnamese-American Tran Quoc Bao that borrows themes from classic Hong Kong martial arts movies and takes inspiration from Bruce Lee, who lived in Seattle, where the film is set and where the director grew up. Photo: Alwin Szeto

Asian-American directors don't usually make martial arts films, which is why The Paper Tigers, directed by Vietnamese-American filmmaker Tran Quoc Bao, comes as a pleasant surprise.

Set in modern-day Seattle, the film blends themes from classic Hong Kong martial arts films with American martial arts culture. The story follows three ageing martial artists (played by Ron Yuan, Alain Uy and Mykel Shannon Jenkins) as they try to find their former master's killer while struggling with the everyday duties of humdrum suburban life.

Tran, who directed the film, learned the Korean martial art taekwondo as a child, and was mentored by Hong Kong action-film choreographer and director Corey Yuen Kwai.

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Tran describes the film as "Shaw Brothers in a street fight". The Paper Tigers is not a genre movie, but the many martial arts scenes, choreographed by Ken Quitugua, are treated with respect and are surprisingly effective.

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Tran spoke to the Post during the Asian-American International Film Festival in New York, where The Paper Tigers opened on October 1.

It's interesting how you take the themes of classic Hong Kong martial arts films - revenge for the death of a master, the need to uphold the honour of the school, the search for a secret combat technique - and put them in a modern American context. Were you influenced by classic Hong Kong movies?

Yes, I drew on the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest films, which I grew up watching as a kid. Those elements are a part of the world of the film we wanted to build. The roots of the film are in martial arts movies, but people who aren't familiar with the genre can come to it with fresh eyes and enjoy it.

Hong Kong martial arts cinema: everything you need to know

Corey Yuen, the renowned martial arts choreographer and director, gave you advice. How did that come about?

Corey is a family friend, as he lives in Seattle like me. I was fortunate to meet him in my high school years, and he used to give me filmmaking tips. I started off pretty early making backyard videos of martial arts fights which emulated Jackie Chan, and I used to take them over to Corey's house, and he would be give me tips on the filming.

I am incredibly indebted to him. I was just a kid pestering him with my home videos, and he would always give me advice. I've never been to film school, so that was my film school. It was actually a masterclass!

Quoc Bao Tran wearing a hat: Tran Quoc Bao, director of The Paper Tigers. © Provided by South China Morning Post Tran Quoc Bao, director of The Paper Tigers.

How did you go about getting the ideas from classic martial arts films to work in a realistic modern setting? They blend very well.

We were inspired by Bruce Lee. He was a real fighter, and in Seattle, where I live, his influence is still very much in evidence, as he lived here. Bruce got into a lot of trouble in Hong Kong because he fought in rooftop challenges, which were kind of modern-day versions of the challenges and duels you see in martial arts films. With that in mind, it's not too big of a jump to move from medieval China to modern times.

Did martial arts schools used to challenge each other in the US?

The beimo (unofficial fight) culture which was going on in Hong Kong did carry over to the Asian-American side of martial arts. When kung fu schools were set up here, in the Chinatowns of the US and Canada, challenges were very common between schools. You could actually get your school shut down for fighting in those days. This was very much an extension of the culture in Hong Kong. The codes and the honour system that martial artists in Hong Kong adhered to were revered here.

a man and a woman standing in front of a store: Ron Yuan and Matthew Page in a still from The Paper Tigers. Photo: Al'n Duong © Provided by South China Morning Post Ron Yuan and Matthew Page in a still from The Paper Tigers. Photo: Al'n Duong

How did you go about choreographing the film?

Ken Quitugua is the action director and fight choreographer, and we followed the Asian method of filming, where you have a director and an action director who has a lot of input. That hierarchy does not exist here in the US, but we arranged it that way, as we were doing everything ourselves - it was DIY filmmaking. We were going for something like Shaw Brothers in a street fight with the fight scenes. We paid a lot of attention to the editing and camera angles to make sure that we portrayed the martial arts correctly.

Part of the fun comes from the fact that the three heroes are past their prime as martial artists.

It's one of those films which aims to represent the true kung fu styles and forms. But our heroes are a little floppy, as they are out of shape. So they are not going to look pretty - the kicks are not going to be too high, the punches are not going to be too fast. Our characters are not the quickest guns in the West, and it looks like they are straining. That was the creative challenge - how do you make something look a bit sloppy but still make it good to watch?

a man riding a skateboard at night: A rooftop fight scene with actors Ken Quitugua, Alain Uy, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins, in the film The Paper Tigers. Photo: Al'n Duong © Provided by South China Morning Post A rooftop fight scene with actors Ken Quitugua, Alain Uy, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins, in the film The Paper Tigers. Photo: Al'n Duong

One of the amusing parts of the film is the portrayal of the Caucasian martial artist who tries to be more Chinese than the Chinese characters.

You run into a lot of guys like that on the martial arts scene in the US. But it is an affectionate portrayal in the film, as I did learn a lot of martial arts from Caucasian people. These days, they are carrying a torch for martial arts. Asian kids aren't encouraged to study martial arts now, as society is more aspirational and parents don't want their kids to get bruised. But in Eastern Europe, for instance, they have really rough and tumble kung fu. They produce really good martial artists because of that.

Did you learn martial arts yourself?

I was a couch potato and my parents made me do taekwondo, kicking and screaming. I learned how to kick and scream.

Phillip Dang holding a sign: The Kung Fu Punks, played by actors Brian Le, Phillip Dang and Andy Le, in a still from The Paper Tigers. Photo: Alwin Szeto © Provided by South China Morning Post The Kung Fu Punks, played by actors Brian Le, Phillip Dang and Andy Le, in a still from The Paper Tigers. Photo: Alwin Szeto

In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved genre. Read our comprehensive explainer here.

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