Paper Tiger: Review

Paul Kowalski’s Paper Tiger

Whenever a phenomenon becomes common in society, there is sure to be a subgenre of film that develops alongside it.  School mass shootings have been explored in such works as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant or, even more effectively, in Lynne Ramsay’s chilling We Need to Talk About Kevin, which features a phenomenal performance by Tilda Swinton.  Director Paul Kowalski’s Paper Tiger is a far cry from Ramsay’s film.  Not only is Paper Tiger a difficult watch in terms of subject matter, but it is also a difficult watch in terms of execution.  

Paper Tiger centers around a secondary schooler who goes by the name of Edward Murrow (Alan Trong).  His birth name is Dawei, but since it is often mispronounced by his American teachers, he lives a double life—in school he is Edward, at home he is called Dawei by his mother.  His Chinese American mother (Lydia Look) is stern and tries to motivate Dawei to get top marks.  Top marks are the last thing on Dawei’s mind.  He is bullied at school for being a loner, has difficulty talking to Caucasian girls with the same ease that some of his male Asian peers seem capable of, has mental health issues that include hallucinations, cannot relate to his mother; and, as if that were not enough, he has not gotten over his father’s death.  After school, Dawei spends his days in his room, playing a virtual reality shooter game.  The game and his revenge fantasies set Dawei on a dark path—planning a school shooting.  

When Paper Tiger focuses on Dawei’s experiences as the child of immigrant parents, the film is captivating.  This push and pull between your family’s culture and the customs of the country you are schooled in, is tapped into effectively and insightfully by Paper Tiger.  Scenes wherein Dawei’s mother’s first reaction, after hearing of a school shooter on television, is to blame the parents of the shooter for the laxed way in which they likely brought up their child; or scenes in which there is a tension between Dawei’s mother and his aunt regarding the effectiveness of Western psychiatric medications versus traditional Chinese medicine are perceptive and ring true for those of us who are the children of immigrant parents.  These scenes, however, are not enough to save the film.

The acting in Paper Tiger is as disappointing as the script.  Scenes that are supposed to capture Dawei’s mental health issues are not believable.  His mother has a constant scowl on her face.  Her role is allowed no nuance, no break from perpetual suffering.  Even Paper Tiger’s one strength—scenes that capture the immigrant experience—is ruined by a ridiculous scene involving a Chinese holy man performing a kind of exorcism on Dawei.  

There are important topics orbiting around Paper Tiger.  A film dealing with the mental health of children and how mothers, especially immigrant mothers, desperately attempt to find solutions for their children in the face of numerous obstacles is a film worth making, a story worth telling; but it is a story worth telling with the right execution.  The right script with the right performance—again, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin would be the prime example—is required when dealing with such hefty topics.  Paper Tiger just stagnates in a pool of dour misery.                  

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A Cuban-American obsessed with documentaries and anything by Kubrick, Haneke, Breillat, or McQueen. If he is not watching films in his hometown of Miami, he is likely travelling somewhere in Asia enjoying okonomiyaki or pho.


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