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Seattle-based kung fu movie ‘The Paper Tigers’ debuts after long, winding 10-year journey

UPDATED: Thu., May 6, 2021

By Moira Macdonald Seattle Times

Ten years ago, film editor Bao Tran dreamed of writing and directing his debut feature, a warmhearted kung fu comedy set in Seattle and centered on three childhood best friends who reunite in middle age to avenge their murdered master. “The Paper Tigers” finally arrives in theaters and online Friday – after a not-always-smooth journey. When Tran began pitching his screenplay to financiers years ago, the reaction was often discouraging.

“We pitched it around Hollywood and Los Angeles and the production studios – they needed star power,” said Tran, a native of Olympia who now lives in Seattle and has worked in the film industry here and in Vietnam.

“With Hollywood, with a longstanding history of whitewashing, usually it stems from business decisions – whether a star is bankable. … That was their caveat: They wanted to produce, but they wanted to change the cast to white characters.” This was, he said, before the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” gave an example. “It’s this cruel Catch-22: If you don’t have movies with Asian American stars, you won’t have bankable Asian American stars.”

Meanwhile, Tran was also hearing from fellow Asian Americans “who are very strongly advocating for completely different types of stories” and who felt that a martial arts movie was “almost too on-the-nose.”

While Tran said he “completely understood” that point of view, considering that historically the stereotypical depiction of Asian Americans on-screen has been “henchmen, martial arts thugs,” he knew this was the movie he wanted to make – one that would combine his love for martial arts with a warm story of friendship and dazzling action. “At the end of the day,” he said, “we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly.”

After hitting “brick wall after brick wall,” Tran and the producing team – which also included Seattle’s Yuji Okumoto (“The Karate Kid Part II”), who owns Kona Kitchen – turned to Kickstarter, believing there was an audience for “The Paper Tigers.” He raised more than $124,000 and attracting the attention of other donors.

“Most of our private investors are from this region completely away from Los Angeles and the industry,” Tran said. “People saw the Kickstarter and read about us, and that became a way to get the rest of the sum.”

Though the film’s flashback sequences, in which the main characters are young, were shot a few years earlier, the bulk of “The Paper Tigers” was filmed in the summer of 2019, primarily in the Chinatown International District and Shoreline. Watch for landmarks including the Smith Tower, Firland Sanatorium and China Harbor restaurant – where Okumoto plays a waiter.

Most of the actors were from out of town, including the three lead performers – Alain Uy (TV’s “Helstrom,” “True Detective”), Ron Yuan (“Mulan,” TV’s “Marco Polo”) and Mykel Shannon Jenkins (“Undisputed III: Redemption,” TV’s “The Bold and the Beautiful”) – but many crew members were local. It was, Tran said, truly a community endeavor, from the local film office that helped with permits to Chinatown ID merchants who provided snacks for cast and crew.

Postproduction wrapped in early 2020 – just before cinema doors slammed shut due to the pandemic. Normally, a crowd-pleasing movie like “The Paper Tigers” would make the rounds of film festivals, screening in packed auditoriums before happy audiences. Tran considered, as other filmmaker friends had done, just letting the film sit for a while, waiting until in-person theatrical experiences were possible again. But, ultimately, he and the producers didn’t want to wait. “We just had a momentum,” he said.

“The Paper Tigers” arrived on the scene at a time of new interest in diverse Asian stories on the screen, with films as different as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell” and the Oscar-winning “Parasite” setting box offices on fire before the pandemic.

The Korean American family drama “Minari” earned six Oscar nominations this year. Tran, thinking of how not long ago he was urged to make his main characters white, noted that Asian stories with Asian actors are “a little more at the forefront now, but a lot of work needs to be done.”

Tran’s film has screened at many festivals, winning awards at the Boston Asian American Film Festival (audience award for best narrative film), the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (special jury award for best editing, to editor Kris Kristensen) and the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (grand jury prize).

At the latter, Tran said, the filmmakers came the closest to having an in-theater experience: The film screened as a drive-in feature. Despite the Seattle drizzle, producer Al’n Duong spent the screening circling the cars listening to reactions. (He reported plenty of laughter.)

The film’s 10-year journey finally ends in theaters Friday, when “The Paper Tigers” opens on about 50 screens, including the Cinemark Lincoln Square in Bellevue.

Tran is eager to finally sit with an audience and reflect on the film’s journey – one that mirrors the story on-screen. Ultimately, Tran said, “The Paper Tigers” is “a story about these gentlemen who are passionate about one thing, lose their way and rediscover the passion and the value of it.”

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