Smoking Tigers Is a Beautiful, Quiet Look At Growing Up [Tribeca Review]

Smoking Tigers still of Apa (Jung Joon Ho), Ara (Erin Choi), Hayoung (Ji-Young Yoo), and Umma (Abin Andrews) sitting at a table.

With music that accentuates scenes and silent moments that signify ranges of emotions, Yo’s sharp direction makes Smoking Tigers familiar and a triumph.

Smoking Tigers, playing at Tribeca Festival, is a subdued film with powerful emotions. It’s a coming-of-age tale but with a lead navigating her parents’ separation, educational expectations, and peer pressures. First-generation Korean-American writer and director So Young Shelly Yo looks at the strain on one teenage daughter when the family dynamic shifts. With music that accentuates scenes and silent moments that signify ranges of emotions, Yo’s sharp direction makes Smoking Tigers familiar and a triumph.

Hayoung (Ji-Young Yoo) opens the film inside a spacious bathroom. She grabs some jewelry and sits in a tub, looking around her. It’s apparent this isn’t her home; then she exits to the living room where her father, apa (Jung Joon Ho), is talking to the owner about emerald green, the “Hermes” of carpets. Hayoung reads in the background as they chat but smiles softly as her father flatters the woman. That small smile makes it clear these two get along.

Smoking Tigers Shows the Aftermath of a Failing Marriage

Although not divorced, Hayoung has clear sides between her father and mother, Umma (Abin Andrews). When Hayoung’s mom talks to her, you see the teenager come out. Her responses are monosyllabic when she can and whiny at other times. It’s clear the mom is the responsible parent, pushing her daughter to succeed so she can get into a prestigious college. Hayoung throws it in her mom’s face that her father would never force her to attend a test prep academy. As an adult, you sympathize with the mother, whose sacrifices go unnoticed, while the dad, Mr. Unreliable, gets a pass.

Teen Lead Holds It All Together

Smoking Tigers still of Hayoung (Ji-Young Yoo) and Rose (Erin Yoo) talking in a three part mirror.
Smoking Tigers still of Hayoung (Ji-Young Yoo) and Rose (Erin Yoo).

Ji-Young Yoo’s performance is outstanding. She brings levels to the character. In one moment with friends, she appears mature. With her mom, she’s combative, but with her dad, she’s the typical “daddy’s girl” that’s about to get a rude awakening. Interestingly, her young sister, Ara (Erin Choi), is not close with their dad, putting them on opposing sides. One blames the mom for their father leaving; the other blames their mom. Yet, Ji-Young and Erin display that sisterly affection in Smoking Tigers, with Ji-Young having shades of parental love too.

Rebellion Helps With Growth

Hayoung’s arc is about growing up and not necessarily hating your parents but realizing both are human. Her dad loves her and her sister, but he is notoriously unreliable and irresponsible, leaving her mom to pick up the responsibilities he fails on. Her mom, though pressuring her to excel in her studies, wants what’s best for her. So she rebels, seeking escape by spending time with wealthy friends at her test prep school and wishing for a better life. She’s in a rebellious teen phase that’s helping her to learn and appreciate the family she has.

The entire cast in Smoking Tigers delivers as a family struggling to connect through the lens of one of the children fighting to find out who she is and what she wants. But losing sight of what you have is a well-known behavior people exhibit. By the end, it’s not tied up in a neat bow, but, like life, Smoking Tigers leaves it hopeful in a beautifully tender coming-of-age film stunningly directed by Yo.

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