Director: So Young Shelly Yo
Starring: Ji-Young Yoo, Jung Joon Ho, Abin Andrews, Erin Choi, Erin Yoo, Phinehas Yoon
In 2022, director So Young Shelly Yo and producer Guo Guo pitched the idea of Smoking Tigers to Tribeca’s Untold Stories program - a program that sees the winning pitch receive $1 million and a guaranteed screening of their film at the next edition of Tribeca. As fate would have it, they were selected as the program’s winners, and, now, Smoking Tigers has arrived at Tribeca 2023 - and with the added prestige of being the first Untold Stories winner in the festival’s U.S. narrative competition.
Untold Stories is a long-term alliance between AT&T and the Tribeca Film Festival, providing underrepresented filmmakers with $1 million dollars and mentorship to support bringing their ideas to life.
Now in its 6th year, AT&T has contributed over $6 million since the beginning of the program in 2017, empowering underrepresented filmmakers by bridging them with the necessary resources to achieve extraordinary opportunities.
Every year, five talented and diverse filmmaking teams pitch their original feature scripted film projects to an esteemed Greenlight Committee of industry professionals to decide who will be the next $1 million dollar prize recipient.
Korean American teenager Hayoung (Yoo) is having a tough time. Between attempting to comprehend her parent's separation and the tribulations that arise from it, whilst also caring for her younger sister Ara (Choi), the stress of high school life is rife. Alongside studying for college entry exams, Hayoung meets a new group of friends but can’t bring herself to show them the real Hayoung, such is the reality of her life compared to theirs. It all sounds like a typical coming-of-age dramedy, and whilst Smoking Tigers certainly exhibits many traits of the coming-of-age subgenre, this is very much a straight-up drama focusing on teenage and familial struggles, being the outsider looking in, friendship, stress, and love.
Set in the late-2000s, the film has a wonderful throwback feeling that helps to ground the narrative in a way that a contemporary setting maybe couldn’t, and the sheer look of Smoking Tigers is fantastic. Along with DoP Heyjin Jun, Yo creates each scene with such meticulous craft and vision allowing for a richer experience, the framing and shot composition elevating otherwise ‘standard’ shots, and the patience shown with lingering shots really complemented the mood and tone of the film. It’s a tone that see-saws expertly with Masayoshi Fujita’s delicate score, Smoking Tigers utilises silence extremely well and strikes the right balance when introducing music to scenes.
As Hayoung, Ji-Young Yoo is so, so good. Her quiet demeanour disguises her inner sadness, fears, and wants in a way that conveys real authenticity - as someone who also feels like an outsider looking in, her performance hit that bit harder. She exudes effortless chemistry with her fellow performers and delivered a truly heartfelt performance, especially in moments of bonding with her mother. As a whole, the film itself carries a vibe of authenticity, the characters and situations feel lived in and there are no wild third-act plot revelations to derail the narrative - it simply follows Hayoung as she navigates a tough period in her life. Yo also portrays Hayoung’s inner thoughts and fantasies beautifully, whether that be a conversation with her father or a terrifically yearning dinner ‘dream’ sequence, the character is given life and licence that allows for a more nuanced depiction.
Alongside Hayoung, we also glimpse the struggles faced by the rest of Hayoung’s family. Her father Appa’s (Jeong) struggles to keep his business afloat, her mother Rose (Yoo) trying to hold the family together in the face of financial struggles following the separation, and her younger sibling Ara (Choi) as she attempts to comprehend the new direction her young life has taken. Whilst each subplot is afforded varying degrees of attention, I didn’t get the feeling that any were undercooked or cliched, such was the strength of the writing and performances across the board. Similarly, with Hayoung’s new friendships, the emotions and situations that burgeoned from them carried real weight and feelings.
Smoking Tigers is a relatively simple film, but one that just gets everything right. It’s beautifully shot, wonderfully paced, smartly written, well-acted, and has a strong emotional undercurrent - I absolutely adored this movie.
June 10th 2023