AFF Review: Paper Tiger

Drama explores the trauma of loss and the immigrant experience

Inspired by personal experiences and a news story that writer-director Paul Kowalski saw while studying at the American Film Institute, Paper Tiger is a unique depiction of the immigrant experience, American school gun violence, and mental health. More than that, it strives to explore the complexities of a mother’s love.

In the wake of his father’s unexpected passing, high schooler Edward (Alan Trong) struggles with grief and social alienation on the cusp of his 18th birthday. Widowed mother and dual-protagonist, Lily (Lydia Look), has a similarly difficult time both reeling from the loss of her husband and adjusting to single parenthood. Look brings a uniquely affecting intensity to the role - inhabiting the emotional layers of a grieving mother, while also appearing unsettling in a way that at times foreshadows the film’s dark ending.

Look and Trong became close over their short 19-day shoot, developing a relationship that mimicked their characters. “I became his mother in production, it was very organic,” she explained during the post-screening Q&A. The cultural context of Lily’s motivations were also easy to draw from Look’s own experiences, growing up in Singapore. “The whole concept of keeping things a secret, saving face for the family, is very much an Asian concept that I’m familiar with.”

Kowalski himself is a Polish immigrant to the United States, and made a concentrated effort to include a diverse cast and crew during production - “at least 80%” of whom he estimates were first or second generation immigrants.

Despite the film’s flashy subject matter, Kowalski doesn’t intend for the film to be interpreted as social commentary. “I don’t think any of us were trying to make a political statement in our film, I think we were really exploring the mother-son relationship and the human universal need to communicate. Because at the heart of it, those two people, as different as they may appear, are actually so similar.” Inspired by ancient Greek tragedies like Antigone and The Odyssey, Kowalski has pushed back against criticism in the distribution process that he should alter his film’s ending. “My take on it is this: it’s catharsis. Hollywood doesn’t always offer that, it offers escapism.”

Throughout the feature Kowalski seems to continually be asking the audience to question how far they would go, if in the mother’s place, to be responsible for their child - rejecting all traditional notions of right or wrong. “I think that’s the whole point of the title, Paper Tiger, which suggests something dangerous, something villainous.” Kowalski explained. “I want to make the audience, at the end, at least stop for a second and think, you know, “What is the tiger? Who is the villain?”

Paper Tiger

Narrative Feature, World Premiere
Screening links available until Oct. 29 at

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Austin Film Festival, Austin Film Festival 2020, Paper Tiger

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