Over the next few days, I’ll be posting mini-reviews, notes, first impressions, and percolating thoughts on the 19 films I saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It was the TIFF’s 32nd year, and my first at the festival. I’ll be back.
There’s nothing wrong with a formula film. Formulas provide artists with structure and, in the right director’s hands, a movie can transcend an established narrative form to comment on its conventions and interrogate the reasons why we—as audiences, as creators—are so drawn to them in the first place. In Ping Pong Playa Jessica Yu proves herself to be the right filmmaker.
Ping Pong Playa takes on the Bad News Bears formula, in which social misfits and kids lacking in proper hand/eye coordination skills learn to triumph in a sport anyway, and in which their immature coach learns to grow up. Our coach/hero is Chrstopher Wang (Jimmy Tsai), who prefers to be called C-Dub. C-Dub, a tall Chinese-American layabout, is a legend in his own mind. If he were a little bit taller, he’d be the next Yao Ming. (The movie opens with him giving a courtside smackdown… to a group of eight-year-olds.) As soon as he and his best friend get money together, he’ll be the next great cartoonist, or video game designer, or DJ, or whatever. What he really does, of course, is mooch off the parents with whom he still lives, eat cereal and play video games all day, ride around on toy motorbikes that are too small for sixth-graders, and shuffle through a series of low-wage, low-brainpower jobs. He’s 22 going on 13.
Like so many youngsters, C-Dub is obsessed with hip-hop and black culture. His parents’ friends—who continually measure the success of their assimilated Chinese children against C-Dub’s, ahem, lesser achievements—often describe him as “that Wang boy who talks like a black person.” He’s not interested in Chinese culture at all, which his parents remind him of constantly, unless he perceives a white person’s slight against Asians. His über-achiever brother (Roger Fan) is not only a doctor but also Los Angeles’ reigning table tennis champion. This is important—Mr. Wang (Jim Lau) owns and operates the local ping-pong supply store; Mrs. Wang (Elizabeth Sung) teaches ping-pong at the local recreation center.
C-Dub, of course, thinks the glorious sport of Chinese champions is for suckers. Or, in C-Dub’s parlance, suckas and stupid-ass motherfuckas.
In a lesser comedy, the film’s perspective would sneer at his behavior; we’ve seen countless, and increasingly unfunny, movies featuring the “wigger” teen thrown up as the obvious punchline. Yu, however, takes C-Dub seriously. Yes, he’s ridiculous. Yes, he’s slovenly. Yes, he’s an arrested adolescent. And lord yes, his aspirations outstrip his talents.
But he’s our arrested adolescent. After all, he is talented. Despite all his protestations, he’s one hell of a ping-pong player. (Tsai, who plays him, must be, too—many of the games we see feature long, unbroken shots.) Furthermore, despite every other character’s protestations, C-Dub is quick-witted and funny. Some of his most obnoxious comments are borne of insight.
As a character, C-Dub is a minor wonder, in part because Yu and Tsai invest so much in him. Tsai moves with the confidence of the great man that his character thinks he is. Many of the belly laughs—and Ping Pong Playa is, hands-down, the funniest movie I’ve seen this year—come from the disconnect between the disconnect between how C-Dub sees himself and how we (and the other characters) understand him. His voice is all-swagger, and his hip-hop stylings are not unintentional parodies but sincere presence. He’s not putting on a mask of hip blackness—the mini-Kawasaki motorcycle and basketball jerseys (He’s worn one for practically every NBA team by the end of the movie) are extensions of his true self.
Yu engages earnestly, but never without wit, the masks Chinese-Americans don on a regular basis. Her gleeful swipes at the annual Miss Chinatown pageant, which C-Dub despises but his brother loves, take aim at the Chinese community’s attempts to construct a respectable façade for the white folks. When a white person makes a terrible joke about “Me love ping-pong long time” at a tournament, though, the Chinese folks roll their eyes in silent anger; only C-Dub has the sense to fume at her, though even the other white people are cringing. C-Dub’s parents are concerned about him, in part, because of how bad he makes them look by association. C-Dub’s best friend JP Money (Khary Payton), who is black, is attempting to learn Chinese to help him in his business work, but can’t work up the courage to speak Mandarin in public for fear of ridicule. C-Dub’s students are brainiacs, geeks, malcontents, dweebs, all in part because their parents want them to be so; they long to rip off their masks, too. Even C-Dub, who never changes his manner or idiom for anyone, is reluctant to admit that he’s better equipped for table tennis than for basketball (or for much of anything else).
These characters are rich beneath the surface, but the surface is pretty funny. Yu stages slapstick well, and allows her actors room to move and negotiate onscreen—while there are fast cuts and quick camera movement throughout, she’s always aware of the actor’s radiance. Some will think her style is lackadaisical but it’s actually understated. She knows precisely when to move from closeup to long shot to reveal a joke. She’s more interested in letting her actors define the screenspace than in formal experimentation. Still, her careful use of décor captures the suburban wasteland accurately, but without condescension.
Yu’s truest gift, though, is in sound. The dialogue—one-liners, wisecracks, and extended explanations of ridiculous behavior—come fast and furious, like high-velocity ping-pong serves. (She co-wrote the film with Tsai.) The characters bounce great lines off each other, batting away and accepting errant behavior in equal measures. She loves the lull and punch of voices and music. She pulls off a great device of covering expletives—C-Dub lets fly quite a few—with the smack of a basketball on asphalt and, later, the pock of a ping-pong ball on a paddle. We know precisely what’s been said, but it’s funnier to hear the sound effects instead. The predominantly hip-hop soundtrack comments well on the onscreen antics, and so we laugh when the final tournament battle is punctuated by a piece that parodies “Eye of the Tiger” so closely that Survivor might have a copyright case.
Every moment of Ping Pong Playa has been orchestrated by previous films of its ilk, but its content is so freshly presented, and its commentary on Asian American life is so sharp, that it doesn’t need to be forgiven. Rather, I’m happy to celebrate it.