Smoking Tigers Review: A Tender Look At Korean American Childhood

In 2022, AT&T and Tribeca announced that a film would be the winner of their AT&T Presents: Untold Stories opportunity. Of five filmmakers and their film ideas, only one was ultimately selected for the final award; the process aims to give those with underrepresented backgrounds and histories funds to create a film. Noble smoking tigers, the director and writer, So Young Shelly Yo, and the producer, Guo Guo, received one million dollars to produce the film, which would be a feature film. It would be given an opportunity so many filmmakers dream of a Tribeca Film Festival premiere and the chance to be picked up by HBO Max, which has since been renamed Max in the years since this award was presented.


Finally, almost a year after his initial selection, on June 10, 2023, smoking tigers had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Yo described how the film grew out of personal experiences comparing his family to his peers and feeling like they didn’t have enough. smoking tigers It follows that plot: Its main character is a low-income Korean American who struggles with loneliness and feelings of comparison when dealing with other people at her local hagwon. While other girls her age have her own bedrooms and a bed to themselves, she is forced to share a bed with her younger sister and feels ashamed of her family’s circumstances.

A tender coming-of-age story

smoking tigers

the protagonist of smoking tigers is Hayoung, a 16-year-old Korean American who grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother is a piano teacher who struggles to find clients and her father sells rugs. The family’s situation is not the best, as they are crowded together in a small apartment, which has become increasingly cramped for Hayoung, and her father is never home again. She’s also the only one who seems to make an effort when it comes to connecting with her father, since her younger sister doesn’t even want to talk to him anymore. Hayoung’s mother, or eomma, feels increasingly distant from her, especially after spending $3,000 to send Hayoung to a hagwon, or after-school tutoring academy, geared toward Korean-Americans.

At first, Hayoung doesn’t want to go to the hagwon. The arrogant head of the academy asks Hayoung where she wants to go to college, but when Hayoung says UCLA, she declares that Hayoung needs to aim higher. Although Hayoung begins to make friends at the hagwon, dating a fellow student named Rose, he feels the need to start hiding who he is. She is embarrassed by the dirty house that her family lives in, so she tells Rose that she lives in the house that one of her mother’s clients lives in.

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This will create big problems for Hayoung later on, especially once she starts casually dating someone from the hagwon, Joon, and plunges deeper into the world of those who have more money than her. But there are more immediate problems at home that she must address, including her father’s growing financial problems and how he no longer answers her calls when she needs him most. Suddenly, everything seems to fall apart for Hayoung at the climax of the film, leading to some revelations about what it means to grow up, reconcile with the people you love the most, and let go of those who can no longer help you on the journey. of life. What her friends take for granted was something she treasured wholeheartedly, even if it meant she only got to do it briefly.

One of the most endearing parts of smoking tigersThe story, however, is how it connects to the heart of Korean-American diaspora culture. When Hayoung’s father wants to apologize to her and her sister, he goes out and buys jjajangmyeon and tangsuyuk. She attends a hagwon to get into elite universities, though that’s not what her heart wants, she’s an import from South Korea’s competitive academic culture. With her mother, she ventures to a jjimjilbang, a Korean-style bathhouse and spa. At the heart of the story may be the classic teenage conflicts between parents and friends and coming of age, but it comes from the heart.

There is beauty in the details

smoking tigers

Los Angeles is known as the city of lights, a place where people can come to start anew for themselves, and there are many small details throughout the film that are reminiscent of this legacy. As Hayoung goes out at night, she discovers a completely different world where her much richer classmates can party and drink alcohol without worrying about the financial costs of it, the overlapping lights make them look like stars, a guide to keeping Hayoung going even when it’s hard. it seems that all is lost and she should give up. But in life, we get second chances, and that’s what Hayoung realizes at the end of the movie.

At the beginning of the film, Hayoung is seen in a bathtub. This becomes a recurring motif throughout the film, as the original bathtub she is seen in is not her own. She is one of her father’s clients, who has money thanks to the nice house he owns. Later, Hayoung becomes obsessed with a renovated house that she is about to go on the market for rent, but her mother dismisses the idea of ​​moving because they can’t afford it. So when Hayoung is looking for a place to escape to for the night, he ends up breaking into that house and reimagining what his life would be like if his family lived there. Again, the house’s bathtub appears in some of these scenes.

For other scenes, the camera lingers in the background as an observer, tilted in a way that feels like we as viewers are contemplating an intimate moment. Whether it’s Hayoung and her sister sitting in front of a client’s pool, the reflection of her rippling in the water, or a camera positioned over the party below, it evokes a feeling that makes one feel trapped in the moment. with Hayoung. . Even as she walks briskly down a Koreatown street at night, with wolf hissing behind her, there is a sense of intimacy and also of nostalgia. Smoking Tigers takes place in the 2000s, and its visuals are also rooted in the time in which it takes place. And maybe that’s a good thing in the long run – while the characters may have flip phones now, someone with Hayoung’s mindset could be worrisome in the age of social media, especially on Instagram and TikTok.

Related: Why House of Hummingbird Is the Korean Coming-of-Age Movie Everyone Should Watch Once

A strong debut effort

smoking tigers -- pool scene

However, one of the weaker sides of the film is the nature of the dialogue. Although the interactions between the characters seem natural, such as Rose and Hayoung originally becoming friends because Hayoung slips a pencil before an exam, their interactions sometimes feel too stiff, the conversations a bit unnatural. But on the other side of the dialogue, the mix of Korean and English conversations makes the film feel more genuine: for the diaspora stories, there’s a forced integration of English into the dialogue that often doesn’t reflect most of the dialogue. immigrant homes.

this does not happen in smoking tigers. Hayoung interacts with her parents in Korean and speaks English with her friends as they peer into her parents’ obsessions with her grades and academic performance. Too often, when it comes to portrayals of Asian-American parents, especially mothers, English-language movies fall back on the Tiger Mother stereotype. smoking tigers dispels these notions: For those like Hayoung’s mother, their children’s education is a way to escape the nature of being a low-income immigrant household in California. Although it may seem wasteful at first, she’s paying so much money for the hagwon, it’s seen as a vehicle for opportunity.

smoking tigers is a strong and exciting debut for an emerging filmmaker. Asian Americans, particularly those of East Asian descent, often fit the stereotype of a model minority within American entertainment and media, but smoking tigers shows the other side of this conversation: the American Dream remains a reach for so many immigrants, and for young people growing up in these environments, it can create feelings of shame, isolation, and detachment from their peers in the same age group. A character like Hayoung is not alone in this world, and this becomes a subtle yet powerful form of representation for these types of stories.

smoking tigers had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 10, 2023.

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