The Intimate, Carefully Composed Coming-of-Age Story Smoking Tigers Is a Tribeca 2023 Highlight

Movies Reviews Tribeca 2023
The Intimate, Carefully Composed Coming-of-Age Story Smoking Tigers Is a Tribeca 2023 Highlight

Hayoung (Ji-young Yoo), a Korean-American teenager in early 2000s Southern California, is presumed to live up to certain stereotypes of academic ambition and achievement, even as the differences and obstacles in front of her are plain as day. In one scene of Smoking Tigers, Hayoung is told to set her college sights higher than her initially stated goal of attending UCLA, and, stuck for a step-up choice, she swaps in Stanford instead – only to be told in quick succession that she’ll need to work incredibly hard to get into Stanford, and the “good” grades she’s hoping to parlay are, frankly, closer to average. As-is, her family cannot afford an expensive private college, or possibly any college at all – but, with the implicit promise of scholarship possibilities, they are pressured into spending thousands of dollars on a test-prep course to improve Hayoung’s odds (alongside the similarly improving odds of countless peers in her area). Sales pitches are often phrased as secret admonishments; here, they’re also pitilessly tied up into the rigorous expectations of one particular type of immigrant experience.

Smoking Tigers has a lot of details that will be familiar to readers of YA or attentive viewers of coming-of-age movies: A young protagonist dealing with a fractured family, divisions between an immigrant parent and a semi-assimilated child, embarrassment over economic limitations compared to wealthier peers. It also has gleaming shards of memory I can’t recall ever seeing depicted with quite so much clarity: A hustle-and-grind father, eager but not always able to please, living in a nook of the warehouse storing the carpets he drives around attempting to sell; a dutiful but irritated daughter scrubbing her mother’s back at a spa; the forbidding skill-and-drill structures of a hagwon, a Korean-style test-prep academy where alliances form on the edges of students’ scant free time.

Even more striking is how writer-director So Young Shelly Yo shoots these scenes, and Hayoung herself. Shelly finds reflections in swimming pools, glass doors and mirrors to frame Hayoung as a young woman whose identity is clear on the surface, but not always fully fleshed out, and decidedly separate from say, Rose (Erin Yoo), a more privileged Korean-American student she meets at hagwon – though she doesn’t lack for problems, either. Rose shows Hayoung bruises on her legs to communicate the pressure she’s under to do well in the endless series of test-prep classes (tellingly, the film shows very little actual instruction, just students taking tests, over and over), and Hayoung is moved to discreetly pass her some answers and give her scores a temporary boost.

Smoking Tigers has a lot of little scenes like this: Precisely framed, relatively quiet interactions that carry a surprising amount of weight. In less than 90 minutes, Shelly manages to give proper care to Hayoung’s relationships with her father (Jung Joon-Ho), her beleaguered and sometimes demanding mother (Abin Andrews), Rose, and the cute boy Rose warns her new friend about: He will make her feel special, make all kinds of romantic plans, and move on with devastating swiftness.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Rose is right; Smoking Tigers establishes early on that it’s not going to offer a sentimental vision of powering through teenage angst to forge genuine connections that last a lifetime. Yet the movie’s toughness doesn’t harden into outright misery or cynicism; Shelly, allowing her characters to drift between Korean and English in their speech, recognizes the new identity that Hayoung is forging from these bits and pieces of her life, whether she’s conscious of that formation or not. Ji-Young Yoo makes this transition clear but not overdetermined, smoothing over a few passages of dialogue that sound overly direct or declamatory. In its clear-eyed and naturalistic way, Smoking Tigers takes on a surprising fullness. Like other coming-of-age stories, it must leave some matters unresolved; like many of the best, what we’re left with somehow feels like enough.

Director: So Young Shelly Yo
Writer: So Young Shelly Yo
Starring: Ji-Young Yoo, Jung Joon Ho, Abin Andrews, Erin Choi, Erin Yoo, Phinehas Yoon
Release Date: June 10, 2023 (Tribeca)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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