Review: Smoking Tigers (Tribeca Festival 2023)


Title: Smoking Tigers
MPA Rating: Not Yet Rated
Director: Shelly Yo
Starring: Ji-Young Yoo
Runtime: 1 hour 31 minutes

What it is: Hayoung (Ji-Young Yoo) is a Korean teenage girl who has found herself caught in the middle of a separation between her father and mother. For a moment, while attending a strict summer school program, she encounters a new, rebellious group of friends but finds the relief from her family problems only temporary. Smoking Tigers is a coming-of-age film about a teen girl trying to navigate through a difficult time in her life.

What We Think: There are two types of coming-of-age films, in this reviewer’s humble opinion. There’s the fun zany kind with shenanigans and there’s the more realistic kind that is usually trying to say something. Smoking Tigers definitely falls into the latter category. The story is somber and realistic, keeping grounded to the point where it feels almost like you are watching true-life events play out before your eyes. I would not be surprised if the writer of the screenplay was simply writing about events from their life with how realistic this felt. There is nothing pretentious about the film and it has an honesty in its delivery that is rather refreshing in comparison to many other similar movies. If there was one word to encapsulate this film it would be this: isolation. Throughout the film, Hayoung’s isolation is maddeningly apparent. Whether it be around her ever-imploding family or her not-so-trustworthy friends, one can tell that even though people surround her, she always feels alone. This is amazingly conveyed by Ji-Young Yoo, who does an excellent job of portraying Hayoung as a girl that’s simply trying her best to navigate the turbulent waters of life. There is nothing in this movie that felt odd or out of place. Everything in the movie felt like it was from the heart. Every shot, every scene, serves to convey Hayoung’s sense of loneliness and the longing she has for her family to be whole again. This emptiness she feels is enough to genuinely make your heartache, as it’s blisteringly apparent throughout that her parent’s relationship is doomed. Every misstep she takes, and every flaw she has is all reasonably human and sympathetic. The film is bittersweet and wholesome. The only negatives I could find with this one were at times the pacing felt too slow and parts felt depressing. If anything, however, those negatives fed into how truthful the film felt. Life is slow and depressing at times and it feels intentional. It’s an understated movie. You won’t find big explosive moments of chaos or bombastic earth-shattering scenes in it, but it will feel like you’re actually watching the life of a teenage girl struggling with finding her footing in turbulent times.

Our Grade: A, This film was really solid and honest. Even in scenes that in the hands of lesser filmmakers could’ve been pretentious, it remained completely stripped of any pretension. Smoking Tigers is an excellent coming-of-age film and deserves every accolade it acquires.

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