Seattle filmmaker says Hollywood wouldn’t make his film unless he replaced his POC cast with white actors

Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Alain Uy and Ron Yuan (from left) star in “The Paper Tigers,” opening in theaters nationwide this Friday. (Photo courtesy of The Paper Tigers)

After 10 years of blood, sweat, and tears, Seattle writer and director Bao Tran is releasing his first film nationwide this Friday. The Paper Tigers is a kung fu action comedy about three kids who studied martial arts together, lost touch, and then reunited as 40-year-old men.

“They find out their master is killed and they have to come back together and find out what happened,” Tran explained. “They’re out of shape, they’ve got kids, they’ve got jobs, and ultimately they have to avenge their master. The way we like to say it is, imagine if you have to fight a death match tonight, but you have to go pick up your kid from soccer beforehand.”

Several years ago, Tran shopped the script around Hollywood, the traditional route of getting a film made, but in every meeting he heard the same thing: We’ll make the film … if you swap out the Asian and African-American actors with white actors.

“It was insane. We would get crazy notes in terms of making the film, like, just get Bruce Willis, put him in the movie and you can make this movie,” Tran laughs. “Did you read the script? I think there’s a lot of old, old, old thinking that hasn’t died out completely yet.”

Since there is such a long tradition of white washing films, these executives don’t seem to have any shame in being blunt and asking for what they want.

“It’s definitely couched in business sense so it doesn’t feel prejudiced, but it is, obviously,” Tran said. “Keep in mind, this was before Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, before we could really point to all these big movies. They’ll say, ‘there’s no successful film with leading casts of color. How can you justify putting our money in to make a movie like this?’ So it’s kind of a catch-22 in that never ending cycle. So, yeah, there is a brazenness because they kind of feel like they have history and data by their side. Fortunately, those dinosaurs are dying out and that’s just an old way of thinking. It is just so patently absurd, and yet it’s a very prevalent way of thinking.”

Tran refused to recast the film, so he came back to Seattle and set up a Kickstarter. On the crowd funding page he wrote:

“We’ve had offers to fully fund the film if only we change our main characters to Caucasians. We’ve had offers to fully fund the film if we shoot in China. We’ve had offers to sell the script and shop it to more famous directors. But this is a distinctly Asian and American story and we have consistently stuck to our guns to make the movie we want to make.”

In the end, the film was fully funded by the community and local investors.

Seattle’s Yuji Okumoto is a producer on The Paper Tigers. He’s also a seasoned actor, who played Chozen Toguchi in Karate Kid Part II and Cobra Kai.

“We’ve seen this before with Joy Luck Club,” Okumoto said. “As an actor I thought, ‘oh, this is the turnaround film, this is what will help us get over the hump and there are going to be more roles created for us.’ But that never happened. I think we kind of missed the boat on that, we didn’t capitalize on it as a collective, so I think this time around we’re more prepared. When Crazy Rich Asians came out, and now we have so many other films and television shows that are coming out, maybe this is the time. I think, for Asian Americans, now we have to step up and support these films and shows.”

America’s Chinatowns need our help before we lose a big piece of immigrant history

The Paper Tigers was shot in Seattle before the pandemic shut down, with a lot of scenes set in the Chinatown International District.

It opens nationwide in theaters and online this Friday on platforms like Amazon and Google Play, but if you want a sneak peak, there is a showing at Bellevue’s Lincoln Square on Thursday.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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