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How director Raman Hui's personal journey mirrors his animated fantasy flick ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’

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Director Raman Hui's initial encounter with the “The Tiger’s Apprentice” animated film script was not just a mere exploration of another cinematic venture; it was a voyage into his own past.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hui, who discovered his passion for drawing at a young age, found himself moving to Silicon Valley to become an animator. While Hui fulfilled his dream to work for Pacific Data Images, later acquired by DreamWorks Animation, he spent years trying to isolate himself from coworkers because he spoke little English.

Hui frequented the bustling streets of San Francisco, particularly the cultural hub of Chinatown, a place he considers his second home. When Hui picked up “The Tiger’s Apprentice” script by David Magee and Christopher Yost, he realized his personal connection to the story runs deep, discovering that the story about mythical creatures is also about the very essence of his own life.

“Every weekend, I would go up to San Francisco to spend time in Chinatown to get food and watch movies from Hong Kong,” Hui tells NextShark. “So when I read this story is about this Chinese teenager who lives in San Francisco, and then all these things in childhood happened to him, I was like, ‘Hey, I feel like I know this kid.’”

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The Paramount Plus film follows Chinese American teenager Tom Lee (Brandon Soo Hoo), who discovers his magical powers for the first time and meets a mythical tiger named Hu (Henry Golding), who then informs him of his lineage of protectors known as the Guardians. Lee, as Hui describes, is a quiet boy who felt like he didn’t fit in, who was embarrassed about his background and just wanted to be normal.

“I was a little bit like that,” Hui admits. “It's kind of like Tom is a reflection of us in a way. Like when I first went to the U.S., my English was so bad. I could barely carry a conversation, so I felt very insecure. If people talked to me, I don't know how to answer.”

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Hui emphasized how Lee’s struggles with fitting in and adapting to a new culture mirrored his own challenges when he first arrived in the U.S. But as Hui learned how to adapt and be comfortable in his own skin, he eventually went on to direct “Shrek the Third” (2007) and Monster Hunt” (2015).

The successful completion of “The Tiger’s Apprentice” has been a rewarding experience for Hui, as he likens it to watching his little baby go to school and meet new friends. He hopes the audience can relate to his latest film, particularly Lee’s journey, whether through their own past experiences or by gaining insights into the challenges of adolescence. He aims for viewers to find courage in facing their problems, much like Lee does in the movie.

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“The Tiger’s Apprentice” boasts a diverse, star-studded Asian cast, including Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Bowen Yang, Jo Koy, Leah Lewis, Sherry Cola, Greta Lee, Kheng Hua Tan, Poppy Liu, Diana Lee Inosanto, Deborah S. Craig and Patrick Gallagher. Hui expresses gratitude to the cast for not only bringing the Chinese zodiac animals to life, but for giving him a fun experience in the audio booths.

For instance, Hui shares the amusing moment from the voice-recording sessions wherein Cola playfully embodied her character while voicing a monkey. Yeoh, who plays the villain, brought laughter as she was able to quickly switch from serious lines to genuine laughter. Liu, playing two characters, also showcased her versatility, amusingly transforming into the dim sum lady in the film. Yang, with his energetic performance, always brought humor to the recording sessions, making it challenging for the team to remain serious.

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The animated fantasy flick releases to Paramount Plus on Friday, ahead of the Lunar New Year, a timing that Hui finds fitting for Chinese families to come together. He sees it as an excellent opportunity for families to enjoy the movie during the traditional Lunar New Year festivities, which typically involve eating, playing mahjong and spending time with loved ones.

“Hopefully the audience will find something that they like in the movie or in a character that they can relate to and have some laughs. I think deep down ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’ is not only about fun. It's more about the lesson that Tom learned, and in the end, you see how one sacrifices for another. I think that's the bigger idea that the story is trying to tell.”

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