A Bruce Lee T-shirt, sleeveless. A Bruce Lee poster. A visit to Bruce Lee’s grave. Jason (Kurt McKinney), a teen practicing martial arts in a garage, clearly has a hero. He and his dad had to move to Seattle after Ivan Kraschinsky the Russian (Jean-Claude Van Damme) broke his dad’s leg—don’t worry about why. After Jason tangles with bullies, Bruce Lee’s ghost (Tae-jeong Kim) arrives to train him. Soon Jason is jump kicking amid swinging sandbags, doing Lee’s signature two-finger push-up, and owning Kraschinsky in a karate competition.
This is the arc of the somewhat forgotten 1986 action flick No Retreat, No Surrender. Few would rank it highly among martial arts movies. It tracks mostly as a mash-up of The Karate Kid and Rocky. Yet although Bruce Lee lived in Seattle from 1959 to 1964, met his wife, and started his first martial arts school here, the film is arguably the closest thing Seattle has to a Bruce Lee movie. Even the 1993 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story elided his time in the city, a narrative compression.
Nevertheless, Lee’s mark is impossible to ignore. His tombstone in Lake View Cemetery is the most famous grave in city limits—where, even on a snowy weekday this winter, with the grave fenced off, I watched three groups of people walk up and take pictures in 10 minutes. If you catch a beer at Capitol Hill’s the Pine Box, you’ll hear that the space used to be a mortuary, where Lee’s funeral was held in 1973. Visit Tai Tung, Chinatown–International District’s oldest Chinese restaurant, and you’ll hear it was Lee’s favorite spot for a meal.
So when filmmaker Bao Tran set out to make a martial arts movie in Seattle, he was well aware that he was communing with a legacy. His movie, The Paper Tigers, gets a wide release May 7, both in theaters and online. On one level, it’s an action comedy about middle-aged guys getting back into gung fu, after years without training. It’s goofy and fun. On another level, it’s a sort of meta-commentary on the circumstances surrounding its own making, on Lee’s legacy in Seattle, on representation in cinema.
The Paper Tigers centers on three friends: Danny (Alain Uy), Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), and Hing (Ron Yuan). They grew up together in Seattle as gung fu hotshots training under their master Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). Twenty-five years later, they find out Cheung has died. Then their former rival Carter (Matthew Page) insinuates that the death may be no accident. (He’s the movie’s finest takedown of martial arts stereotypes, a comically appropriative white guy, who exclusively wears traditional garb and begins advice with, “We Chinese have a saying….”) Danny is now a lackluster divorced father, and Hing has a bad knee from a workplace injury and rocks a mighty dad bod. Nevertheless, the trio reunites to sleuth out their master’s killer. When they face off with whirling younger fighters, the older bodies falter: A knee gives out, lungs won’t take enough air—all played for laughs.
Tran clearly has an affection for affable martial arts movies. He grew up a first-generation Vietnamese American kid in Seattle, watching Hong Kong cinema alongside Steven Spielberg flicks. He started making short films with friends after seeing Jackie Chan movies. As it happened, Corey Yuen—the famed director of, among many other things, No Retreat, No Surrender—was a family friend. Tran showed him some of his early action shorts and Yuen offered some guidance.
In No Retreat, Jason’s garage workouts signaled the amateur-to-master arc. In The Paper Tigers, they signal the DIY spirit of the production itself.
We’ll give you $4 million. The movie just needs to star some white guys. How about Bruce Willis?
This was the gist of what Tran and producer Al’n Duong heard after Tran wrote the script to The Paper Tigers in 2011 and they’d started shopping it to Hollywood studios. One producer wanted the lead to be white (all three stars are people of color) “to make it more palatable, more marketable,” says Tran. This was before Crazy Rich Asians, before #OscarsSoWhite. White stars, frequently beating up people of color, are a fixture in American martial arts movies. See, for instance, a Jean-Claude Van Damme hit (Bloodsport or Kickboxer) or Kill Bill. Tran considered such offers golden handcuffs—you trade money for control of the movie. Tran and Duong passed. Someone, Tran figures, has “to create these cracks in the glass ceiling.”
Instead of studio money, they shot the first 10 minutes of the movie, a sort of commercial, and took to Kickstarter with a modest goal: $110,000. They passed that, and eventually more producers signed on: Yuji Okumoto, the owner of Seattle’s Kona Kitchen (who starred in The Karate Kid Part II and Netflix’s new follow-up Cobra Kai), and local director Dan Gildark.
Had they gone the studio route, the movie might’ve shot in another city, too. While Tran says the Seattle Office of Film and Music was “incredibly helpful” in navigating a local shoot, Washington state doesn’t have incentives that make it lucrative to work here. But taking it anywhere else would’ve altered its DNA. The first shot is a dragon wrapped around a pole in the C–ID. Characters visit Tai Tung and the Dynasty Room. In fact, filming in the area helped keep costs down. The Wing Luke Museum opened up as a lunch space for the crew; businesses like Hood Famous Cafe and Bar provided food. Even the sky helped: For a scene in the rain, no machine was necessary.
In many ways the movie about three guys reuniting later in life was itself a reunion. Much of The Paper Tigers’ crew met on the set of Bookie, Tran’s 2008 short set in the C–ID’s 1960s soul scene. Yet, even as Seattle’s C–ID community proved invaluable, the movie met resistance from Asian Americans when seeking funding, Tran says. Why, Tran says they wondered, when features like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell “are pushing the envelope or [showing] other facets of our culture and our experience—why make martial arts films?”
Because it is beautiful, Bruce Lee’s fighting is often compared to ballet. But that does not convey its pace or its ferocity. It reminds me more of fireworks, or a drummer doing dazzling things on a snare—lightning grace, someone putting the art in martial arts. (For the record, he danced the cha-cha competitively.) If you add to this his intelligence, his magnetism, his cool power—and if you consider the dearth of these in the ways Hollywood showed (and shows) Asians—it’s easy to see why Lee’s influence grew immense quickly. It remains so. Last June, ESPN released the documentary biography Be Water, with an eye toward his role as a civil rights figure. Soon after, Lee’s daughter published Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, an intro to Lee’s philosophy. At the center of that philosophy was unity. When an interviewer pressed him about whether he considered himself Chinese or American, Lee said he thought of himself foremost “as a human being… Under the sky, under the heaven, man, there is but one family.”
Lee’s power as a unifier is part of why he’s remained such a vital symbol, says Maya Hayashi, the Wing Luke Museum’s education specialist. When the museum opened a series of exhibitions about Lee in 2014, five or six lion dance teams performed on the same day, a rarity in lion dances due to “internal politics,” Hayashi says. The fourth part of that exhibition, A Dragon Lives Here, remains in the museum and focuses on Lee’s time in the city, with items like his punching pad and personal journals. Quotes from Seattleites discuss what he means to the city. “He’s kind of like that Chinatown kid who made it, right?” Hayashi says. Because diversity was so lacking on screen in Lee’s day, “I feel he becomes a stand-in for any person of color to kind of be a superhero.”
But due to the force of Lee’s presence, he’s become another sort of Asian stereotype, which is why Bao Tran got some blowback about The Paper Tigers. “That’s kind of the complicated relationship that we have with Bruce,” Tran says. He’s “this incredible figure that shows a model of strength, and yet this is being used to caricature us or box us in or define us very narrowly.”
Of course, no one expects Jean-Claude Van Damme to represent all white men. That’s simply why we need more representation, more examples, more nuances. Lee was one guy, not a monolith. The Paper Tigers, Tran says, is true to his and his collaborators’ experience, growing up as Asian American kids doing martial arts, but it casts a knowing eye at the legacy it’s working in. “This is the riff—what if Bruce Lee was in a middle-aged crisis with a beer belly? … It’s kind of twisting all those old things into something new.”