Ji-young Yoo as Hayoung in "Smoking Tigers."

‘Smoking Tigers’ is a Gentle Coming-of-Age Story

The Tribeca award winner explores the inner lives of its Korean American characters

Ji-young Yoo as Hayoung in "Smoking Tigers."

Still frame of "Smoking Tigers"/DP Heyjin Jun

Expensive jewels and trinkets lure us into the world and psychology of Smoking Tigers—these are objects of curiosity that 16-year-old Hayoung (Ji-Young Yoo) inspects with a sense of resignation. Her struggling immigrant father (Jung Joon Ho) has brought her along on a carpet design job, to the lavish home of a rich Korean woman in their California suburb. He speaks to his client with kowtowing deference, forcing Hayoung to wander the home for a place of refuge from her embarrassment. She and her father know their place in this hierarchy, and it’s a place she tries desperately to hide once she makes wealthy Korean American friends at her expensive SAT prep class. All the while, she’s worn down by the pressures of her parents’ recent separation, yielding a tale that’s as gentle as it is harrowing, and one that debuting writer-director So Young Shelly Yo tells with quiet, poetic grace.

Hayoung (played by Ji-young Yoo) becomes friends with the wealthy Korean American kids in her SAT prep class.

Still frame of "Smoking Tigers"/DP Heyjin Jun

At the Tribeca Festival in 2022, Yo’s pitch won her and producer Guo Guo a $1 million grant to make the film, as part of the fest’s Untold Stories program (which, in collaboration with AT&T, funds works by filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds). This selection turned out to be worthwhile. After premiering at this year’s Tribeca Festival in June, Smoking Tigers went on to win the award for Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature for Yo, Best Performance in a U.S. Narrative Feature for Yoo, and a Special Jury Mention in the festival’s Nora Ephron Award category, bestowed upon independent women filmmakers with distinctive voices.

Smoking Tigers is an understated work that portrays the precipice of adulthood in all its terrifying excitement—and all its woes. It unfurls with a measured naturalism for the most part, with each of its actors delivering performances so lived-in, and so fully formed, that they become immediately magnetic. Yoo, who’s in her early 20s, embodies the youthful naïveté of young love and electric attraction when she’s swept up by her charming classmate Joon (Phinehas Yoon), in addition to embodying the adolescent angst that comes with navigating the foibles of strict and imperfect immigrant parents, whose dreams for Hayoung’s success are so sky high that they may as well be out of reach.

From the moment we first enter Hayoung’s small and stuffy home, the film reveals a palpable aesthetic expression of its domestic dynamics through blocking and movement, and through words and silences. The space is an immediate contrast to the humongous mansions in which her father is invited to work and grovel in front of society’s upper crust; he’s recently begun sleeping on the couch in his dusty warehouse, making this dichotomy all the more tragic. We also quickly meet Hayoung’s piano teacher mother (Abin Andrews) in a state of prolonged frustration, both with the summer heat and with the family’s crumbling financial circumstances. Between the placement of the camera in cramped spaces, and Hayoung’s DIY attempts to provide air conditioning for her younger sister (Erin Choi)—a damp towel placed over a tiny fan almost does the trick—the film seldom needs words to explain its characters’ interpersonal dynamics or their relationship to their surroundings.

Hayoung (right, played by Ji-young Yoo) is much more at ease with her father (left, played by Jung Joon Ho)

Still frame of "Smoking Tigers"/DP Heyjin Jun

Hayoung is much more at ease with her father, whose personable conversations don’t put her under the same academic pressure as her domineering mother. But as the film goes on, she begins to discover new layers to each parent, which reveal themselves through the cracks in their marriage—dimensions she may not have been able to recognize when she was younger. Similarly, her new best friend Rose (Erin Yoo) seems, at first, like a spoiled rich kid meandering through life, but the closer they become, the more Hayoung learns to read Rose’s behavior as an extension of imperfect family circumstances of her own, leading to further introspection and self-discovery.

Reflection is a key theme in Smoking Tigers, both as a fixture of Hayoung’s viewpoint, and in the way Yo and cinematographer Heyjin Jun literalize and externalize the idea of seeing yourself, and determining how you want to be seen. The camera frequently captures Hayoung through glass and water, as she gazes either at her own image, or past it, into windows that house other people’s seemingly perfect lives, as if she were peering in on some aspirational alternate reality. During some of these scenes, the film breaks from its realism to present visions of contentment. While going back and forth between her home and father’s workshop, she takes up temporary residence in a fancy house still under construction, where she envisions warmth, light, space, and a nuclear family whose American dreams have not yet been dashed. The film is set in the early 2000s, but apart from a few specific design details, it feels immediately timeless in its study of the way Hayoung learns to move through the world and navigate disappointment.

Reflection is a key theme in "Smoking Tigers." From left, Hayong (played by Ji-young Yoo) and Ara, (played by: Erin Choi).

Still frame of "Smoking Tigers"/DP Heyjin Jun

Much of the plot concerns Hayoung lying to her mother about attending various parties and hanging out with her new friends, a juggling act between her home and social lives that most viewers undoubtedly recognize. However, its emotional core is born in the silent moments between these familiar beats, as Hayoung travels from place to place via bicycle, reflecting on her deceptions towards both her friends and her family, while trying to figure out where she fits in, and what her future holds. Yoo’s performance is masterful in its quiet embodiment of these minor struggles, which soon start to feel gigantic. The young actress’ work is further enhanced by how the camera frames her relationship to her surroundings at all times, whether her friends’ sprawling duplexes—in which her reserved body language and shy demeanor feel even more diminutive—or the nighttime summer streets that become her venue for self-reflection as she rides her bike, with long lenses that scatter the out-of-focus lighting, resulting in dancing bokeh (or circles of light).

The frame always feels alive, both thanks to Masayoshi Fujita’s twinkling, wistful score, and Yo’s digital impersonation of celluloid, between the vibrancy with which it captures skin tones—even blushes and minor changes in mood become hyper-apparent—and the seeming addition of film grain, which imbues each still shot with a sense of movement and possibility. The intent, I’m told, was to shoot the movie on film, and while its re-creation of the medium despite digital capture is a partial matter of logistics, it also aligns with the tale of a young, inexperienced girl trying to enter a world of adults whose layers and dimensions she’s yet to discover, as she pushes herself into adulthood through romance, experimentation, and independence. She’s a product of the digital age, trying to be something older.

Smoking Tigers may be Yo’s first feature film, but it beats with the kind of wisdom that so few modern indies of its cultural scope ever achieve, unearthing a tale of Asian American life without resting on the laurels of superficial recognition through verbose posturing.

Smoking Tigers may be Yo’s first feature film, but it beats with the kind of wisdom that so few modern indies of its cultural scope ever achieve, unearthing a tale of Asian American life without resting on the laurels of superficial recognition through verbose posturing. It dives much deeper than that, wading through the ugliness of how poverty constricts immigrant and first-gen dreams, while exploring how we’re only able to see slivers of our parents’ lives until we share in their adult experiences, and turning even the offensive odor of a parent’s cigarette smoke into a delicate memory. It’s an intricate work that investigates the unspoken thorniness of adolescence beset by shame, and by lofty expectations. It’s also optimistic without being overly saccharine, thanks in large part to Yoo’s stellar performance as a girl trying to keep up with her world as it widens at a rapid pace, revealing mirrors all around her that force her to see her friends, her family, and herself in new and unexpected ways.

"Smoking Tigers" follows Hayoung (played by Ji-young Yoo) as she navigates her parents' separation, new friends and young adulthood.

Still frame of "Smoking Tigers"/DP Heyjin Jun

Published on July 3, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter