Friday 17 June 2011

Ping Pong

Ping... Ping a Pong!

Ping Pong Japan 2002
Directed by Fumihiko Sori
ICA Region 2

I don’t really do sport on screen. There are few which I can bother to give a try... although there’s a couple there I do actually quite like. Kon Ichikawa’s 1965 Olympic documentary behemoth Tokyo Olympiad is one which really hit’s the mark. Similarly, if you can forget the Nazi connections for a few hours, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 movie Olympia, which documents in a rather discriminatory way the 1935 Berlin Olympics is another serious contender for an interesting piece of cinema based on sport. Maybe a couple of the Rocky movies are worth crossing the street for too.

Other than those though, off hand, I have to resort to what I call “reel” sports movies... so my list would continue, in no particular order, Shaolin Soccer, Virile Games, Rollerball and Deathrace 2000. I think Battle Royale would have to come in there somewhere too.

I remember seeing Ping Pong at the cinema back in 2002 with a friend though... and I also seem to recall being pretty much blown away by it. It then receded into the background for me until I recently walked into a branch of Fopp records and was blown away all over again... by the £4 price tag. Knowing a bargain when I saw one, I scooped up the movie in question ready to serve up an ace when I got it home to my DVD player. It didn’t disappoint... again.

Ping Pong is based on a manga by Taiyo Matsumoto and, to be fair, it’s a standard sports movie filled with the usual clichés (queue training montage with Rockyesque music)... but it’s also a kick-ass study of the, apparently, very serious world of competitive table-tennis. It’s also the story of two boys, Peco and Smile, and the way they bond with each other from when they are little kids.

Peco is the arrogant, I can kill anyone at this sport, character who you will come to root for... even though his posturing and “talking up” of his prowess of the game will probably start to grate and get on your nerves after a while. Smile is the quiet one, so called because he doesn’t ever smile (Peco only ever saw that happen once). Peco takes Smile under his wing as a kid and teaches him how to play table tennis so he’ll fit in better at school. It’s all very touching.

Cut to present day and Peco loses a match in an important tournament at high school, as does Smile (even though it’s been established that he’s secretly a better player than Peco). Peco loses it completely and gives up but Smile gets more serious about the sport. We then get to the point in the movie where it catches up to the opening sequence where we assume Peco, who has thrown himself into a river, has committed suicide. Quite the opposite in fact, though. Peco has decided to live and “get his game back on”... now things start to get serious as both Peco and Smile take on coaches who train them up, capitalising on their natural talent and making them formidable opponents as they take on an array of blatantly over the top Ping Pong villains... none of whom turn out to be really bad guys after all.

But, of course, if you know anything about how these kinds of movies work then you know that both Smile and Peco are going to beat out all the opposition and come to terms with their various problems and then... end up having to play each other in the finals! How can this be? Who will win? Well... I’m not going to tell you because I’d have to put a big spoiler warning up at the front end and my poor fingers would complain of all the extra typing.

What I will say is that Ping Pong is a gripping drama which manages to wow you with a great freeze frame shot early on in the movie and with minimal Ping Pong playing seen during the first two thirds of the film... the director wisely keeps the action shots in close so you can’t really see much and saves all the really great game play for the last parts of the story. This is a smart move but don’t let this fool you, this is a corker of a movie and the dynamic shots of tension and release aren’t relegated to the actual gaming. This is a film shot by a man who really knows how to pace films... when to slow down and let the characters breathe (there’s some great moments with Smile's coach Butterfly Joe) and when to hit the turbo button again... which usually starts and ends with the stream of arrogant jibes coming from Peco’s mouth.

The table tennis sequences, when they come, are quite stunning but they are not the kind of surreal, larger than life sequences in the style of something like, for instance, Shaolin Soccer, which are deliberately over the top (obviously) and they are much more grounded in reality... "this is a film about a serious sport" is what seems to be the prevalent attitude. This doesn’t stop the director sneaking in a quite “out there” sequence where the game in progress is suddenly shot on a white background with only the two players present... as they both are enjoying the game so much that they enter a kind of Table Tennis Nirvana I guess. It’s good stuff.

Something which the director does find a solution for without any kind of cliché is the painful game between Peco and Smile. Everything hangs on what happens in this match but you are aware at just how much is at stake between these two players at this point. The reveal of the ultimate winner is accomplished with a subtlety and finesse which make for the perfect possible ending to the film.

If you like sports films in general then Ping Pong is one of the better ones to capture a sport on film but please remember, like the very best sports films, it features a sport but it isn’t about that sport... it’s all about relationships between various people... and that’s what make these kinds of movies watchable and give them some heart. Definitely worth a watch out of all of them I’d say and... lets face it... when was the last time you saw a movie about Table Tennis?

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