Judge Adam Arseneau is a more a Bocce Ball Brotha.
Our review of Ping Pong Playa (Blu-Ray), published February 12th, 2009, is also available.
Don't just win. Destroy.
It's tough being a Chinese kid in California, especially if you want to be a basketball player. With the freakish exception of Yao Ming, it's going to be an uphill climb. Enter Ping Pong Playa, a documentary on Chinese-American cultural values, a comedy about a slacker coming of age, a ping pong sports film, a buddy comedy between a young boy and his teacher, a…
You know, I already see what the problem is going to be here.
Facts of the Case
Christopher "C-Dub" Want (Jimmy Tsai) is a suburban Chinese-American who dreams of a career in the NBA, despite being too short and lacking any skill with the rock. He is the bane of his Chinese family, who own a ping pong supply store. C-Dub works at the mall, lives at home and is constantly outshone by his older brother, who is a doctor and a tournament ping pong player (much to his parents delight).
A series of events forces C-Dub to step in and teach his mother's ping pong classes, and responsibility rears its ugly head. Fighting against what he perceives as stereotypes about his own people, C-Dub hates ping pong (despite having a talent for it). Unfortunately for him, he soon becomes a role model for his students, who look to him for guidance and teaching.
But when a hotshot player shows up at the school and tries to lure students away to his own ping pong school, C-Dub must man up and protect the family athletic dynasty the only way he can: tournament ping pong!
Ping Pong Playa is a film about stereotypes, both good and bad. The protagonist, who calls himself C-Dub is a Chinese-American slacker layabout who can't hold down a job and dreams of an improbable career in the NBA. He is the bane of his more traditional minded parents. His brother plays ping pong and is a doctor—the perfect Chinese son. C-Dub, in short, is everything a Chinese family dreads about; more American than Chinese, a failure. He is a conflict of interests, a down-and-dirty gangster wannabe, a hip-hop poser whose appropriation is so perfect that it alienates him from his own family and history. And he hates, hates, hates ping pong.
Director Jessica Yu (Protagonist) is a filmmaker best known for documentary work, and it shows here. As a Chinese-American herself, much of Ping Pong Playa feels like a serious, touching examination into the ever-shifting cultural identity of Chinese-Americans in America today. Who are they? What are their values, their needs? How do they balance their own desires against those of their parents? All of this is top-notch in Ping Pong Playa, and shines through bright and strong. One quickly realizes as surprising amount of thought and introspection went into creating this film, to explore some challenging issues about the generational gap between families, of cultural identity, of racism. Unfortunately, Ping Pong Playa also tries to be a sharp witty comedy, and this part just feels terribly awkward for all involved.
The problem with Ping Pong Playa is its attempts to use humor to its advantage, which never works once. This is an undeniably sweet film, but the humor is as artificial as a bouquet of plastic flowers. It has relevant things to say on the subject of Chinese-American identity in modern society, and how youths struggle to find their place, but tackles the issue through a character with the draw and attraction of a B-grade sketch comedy. C-Dub may as well be an abandoned In Living Color character left on the writing room floor. By centering this kind of touching, introspective examination around a character who is essentially a living caricature of a bad YouTube rap video, Ping Pong Playa undermines its own relevance.
But gosh, talk about tooth decay. To compensate for its jokes all falling flat and its protagonist appearing like a bad Fresh Prince ripoff, Ping Pong Playa ramps up the saccharine to diabetic levels. Suddenly, the slacker has an army of young kids looking up to him and a ping pong tournament to win, and it turns into the Rocky of the Big Brother Big Sisters program. It's adorable and charming and completely predictable, and gosh darn it, annoyingly infectious. It's hard to be too hateful towards a film with such lofty, loving expectations, and there really is a lot to appreciate about how straightforward and approachable Ping Pong Playa tackles complex cultural issues. Dare I say it, it might even make an excellent (gasp!) family film. There's more than enough redeeming qualities in this film to make it worth a rental, as long as you don't expect funny.
Ping Pong Playa has a mediocre presentation, with a washed-out grainy transfer, muted colors and noticeable compression artifacts. It has the look and feel of an independent documentary, but when considering the director and her background, this may be a deliberate style choice. Audio fares better with both 5.1 and stereo Dolby presentations. The soundtrack, primarily hip-hop has nice bass response through the surround track. Dialogue is clear, but there isn't much action in any channel outside the center. The subtitles come in both full English and a limited translation of Mandarin and other non-English dialogue, which is handy for us non-Chinese speakers.
For a single disc release, Ping Pong Playa has a decent offering of supplements, the best of which is a commentary track with directer/writer Jessica Yu and writer/co-producer/actor Jimmy Tsai, full of behind-the-scenes details and thematic examinations. Two featurettes, "Post-Game" and "Warm-Up Drills" run about fifteen minutes combined, and add the obligatory trailer and cast/crew bios to wrap it up.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ping Pong Playa shoots for the moon and barely gets off the ground, in part due to the film cramming far too much crap into the same film. It's like somebody took a documentary about Chinese-American youths in California—plenty enough to warrant its own film—and tried to make it a comedy, a coming-of-age role model drama, a heartwarming film of a slacker making something of himself. Add to this a romance subplot and a beauty pageant and it all just feels a bit much.
Ping Pong Playa succeeds as an exploration of the cultural roots of Chinese-Americans trying to find their own identity in modern America, its youth torn between the traditions of the old and the new, and does so with a pleasant modern twist. There is some genuinely touching, well-executed filmmaking here, but it gets overshadowed by how painful the jokes are. Definitely a film for younger audiences.
A light, inoffensive film, Ping Pong Playa has great intentions but a
toothless comedic maw, unable to grip older audiences. But if sweetness is your
thing, and you're looking for a family film, this playa has it in spades.
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