Ping Pong (2002): Japan – directed by Fumihiko Sori
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some mild language
Ping Pong is my favorite film about sports. I’m not generally a fan of sports movies, as the majority of them are generic, conventional, and predictable, but Ping Pong is different, and not merely because it’s Japanese. It is also finely crafted, charming, deep, and revolves around a sport that doesn’t get much attention (and one I personally love to play). In addition, it’s fun, quirky, and colorful, much like a Japanese Amélie [review here]. It also contains several strange and surreal moments, but by the end of the film I wasn’t as much concerned with the style as I was absorbed in the characters and the outcome.
The story involves two kids who play table tennis for their high school. Peco (Yôsuke Kubozuka) is cocky, arrogant, full of talent, but is not dedicated when it comes to practicing and improving his skills. Peco’s friend Smile (Arata), who is eternally serious, is a great admirer of Peco’s self-assurance and skill. Smile also has a great deal of talent but lacks the confidence to practice and hone his abilities. Part of his problem is that he is so in awe of Peco that he doesn’t want to cause damage to his hero’s image.
There are a few sports-movie cliches present, but the theme and conflict of hero/admirer helps elevate the film. In addition to this unique element there are also story lines involving Smile’s coach, Peco’s granny/coach, and some characters at an opposing school. There is also a Chinese player who comes to Japan to compete, and his outlook on the situation is quite different. At the same time, the top player at the opposing school is so caught up with being the best that he plays only to win; the joy of the game eludes him.
The characters go through a great deal of change as the story progresses. Peco faces humiliation and discovers why and how to pick himself back up. Smile learns that he needs to play for himself and play to win; to care about the game as he never did before. Even the enemy, the leader of the opposing school, finally comes face to face with someone exhibiting the joy of the game and it changes him.
As I mentioned above, Ping Pong does play with some sports cliches, but there are enough unique themes to set this movie apart from the others. Stylistically the film is undeniably Japanese. There are flashbacks to when the players are kids growing up, learning table tennis from the beginning, and some of the flashbacks are quirky and delightful. There are a number of surreal moments where the images change to match the ideas going through the character’s heads. The soundtrack is wonderful and eclectic, with a variety of electronic and pop music and sounds. CG is used effectively in certain shots of the ping pong matches, but with a purpose that adds rather than detracts from the story.
Best of all, the film is just plain fun. I smiled during most of the movie, chuckling at times, at times thoughtful. Some of the more emotional themes are credible without feeling overly manipulative or melodramatic. Ping Pong is familiar enough for Western audiences, but different enough to be engaging and enjoyable. There is little in the way of offensive content, and it would be a great choice for a family movie night. Fans of Japanese cinema should be sure to search it out, but those looking for yet another standard sports film should stay away.