There are only so many ways to tell the same story. You can change the time period, the cultural setting, the genre. But there are only so many ways you can tell the same story. And a tragedy will always end tragically. At a glance, Paper Tiger looks like it will be a Chinese-American We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s the story of a troubled mother and troubled son, often at odds with one another, as they spiral ever closer to the son committing horrible acts of violence against classmates and loved ones alike.
Paper Tiger is the familiar immigrant story of East vs. West, parents vs. children, “tradition” vs. “progress.” The son rejects his Chinese name in favor of an American one and the mother rejects Chinese medicinal canon in favor of the “American” one (A teacher rejects an ethnic label in favor of an American one, as well, but she is less important to the narrative). But each of them only has so far they are willing to go before they are pushed too far, by grief or by fear, until they must pull back, seeking refuge in the things that shaped them as people. But by the time these realizations are reached, it might be too late.
Edward (Alan Trong) and Lily (Lydia Look) are a son and a mother trying to move on after the death of the family patriarch. Edward has a year left of high school, and Lily has the family print shop to run. Lily’s sister, Mei (Elaine Kao), is a reassuring presence in their lives, but she can’t replace who’s been lost. Edward starts to crack under the pressure as the other kids at school tease him for his… eccentricities, and Lily is not the type to dote on anyone, especially as her own stress increases. When Edward becomes more erratic, however, Lily starts to suspect that he may have dark intentions.
This isn’t the type of movie that should be spoiled, but I’ll say this: it is not We Need to Talk About Kevin. It took me entirely by surprise, with several red herrings thrown at the viewer along the way. But the breadcrumbs of the truth are there, if you care to look for them.
I think Paper Tiger‘s biggest sin is trying to play too hard into viewer expectations in order to turn the expected on its head. A few scenes could have been edited, or cut altogether, in order for the storytelling to be a little tighter. I’m also curious as to why the son of a Polish immigrant family would be writing and directing a movie that’s so distinctly Chinese, but as I’m not Chinese, that bit’s neither here nor there.
Paper Tiger (2020) is deeply impactful and a bit unexpected. For better or worse.
6.5 out of 10