Judge Joel Pearce doesn't want to offend anyone with stereotypes about ping pong.
Our review of Ping Pong Playa, published January 6th, 2009, is also available.
Don't just win. Destroy.
I'm not sure why we've seen so many Ping Pong movies over the past few years, but it seems that this humble sport has replaced curling as the biggest sports joke going (not to underestimate the nobility of either sport). Ping Pong Playa is not, however, looking to simply make fun of Ping Pong. Instead, it's the underdog sports movie that we've seen so many times before, but this time it's not about baseball or football.
Facts of the Case
Chris (Jimmy Tsai) really wants to be a basketball player, but more than that, he wants to avoid picking up any responsibility. His parents are more disappointed that he hasn't managed to find a focus in life, unlike his ping-pong champion brother Michael (Roger Fan, Better Luck Tomorrow). When Michael is injured in a minor car accident, Chris is forced to pull his life together and turn things around. This ultimately leads him to training for a spot in the local annual ping-pong tournament, where he needs to uphold the family name.
Ping Pong Playa is a film that pulls the race card quite a bit. Chris is a protagonist who wants to be a basketball player, but mourns the fact that he is Chinese, a genetic disadvantage for the sport of giants. He spends much of the film complaining about his race, the assumptions that other make regarding his race, and the challenges that face him as an Asian American. This has been an important concept recently, as we've finally started to see the face of second generation immigrants on the big screen, after decades of ridiculous stereotypes.
It's a strangely schizophrenic production, though, and not just in its approach to racial stereotypes. Much about the production suggests that the film is serious about being a real sports movie. The tournament at the end is structured seriously, as is the training montage. This gets undermined, though, by the decision to call the tournament the Golden Cock tournament, which is right out of a baser brand of comedy. As well, it's structured to be a kid-friendly production, which meant blanking out a surprising amount of profanity. This is funny a few times, but afterwards we are left wondering whether the PG-13 decision was made late in the game, or Tsai simply has a complete lack of control of what comes out of his mouth.
The nature of Chris as a character is equally confused. Many of the stereotypes that he fights against are real, but the road goes both ways. There are also quite a few stereotypes about other races, especially the lone Indian kid who is mocked mercilessly in the structure of the film. Is it okay that Ping Pong Playa is a film that tries to break stereotypes while it keeps propagating them? It wouldn't matter if it was a film that just rolled with the punches, but the film pushes stereotypes so much that it draws attention to its own offenses.
All of this connects to how I feel about Ping Pong Playa overall. There's a lot to like in it—many parts are quite funny—but so much that I don't care for as well. Its generic nature really prevents it from becoming what it should, and I found Chris as obnoxious as I did funny at times. Most viewers won't be as bothered by this as I was, though, and will probably find this an entertaining sports romp. And it is, too, just not anything we haven't seen before.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
More disappointing is the technical transfer on this Blu-ray disc. While there aren't any horribly glaring problems with the transfer, I could see little benefit of this over a well-mastered DVD. There is quite a bit of digital grain, combined with a generally soft overall look. I'm not sure how the film was shot, but if this was transferred from a 35mm print, someone did a terrible job. The sound is better, with clear dialogue and a muscular mix that digs deep into the LFE for the soundtrack. The surrounds rarely draw attention to themselves, however.
In terms of extras, we get little more than the usual mix of fluff. There is a good commentary track with Jimmy Tsai and co-writer/director Jennifer Wu (Protagonist), which shows how much love went into the film. We also get a mash-up of behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes and outtakes.
Ping Pong Playa isn't a great comedy, and it isn't a great sports movie either. I might go so far as to say it's a half decent example of both, however, and will be a draw for many teenagers, especially Asian-American teens who want to see themselves reflected outside of the Harold and Kumar films. It got quite a bit of solid press at film festivals last year, but now that the festival shine has worn off, it's clear on the small screen that Ping Pong Playa isn't anything special.
Ping Pong Playa is guilty, but not of anything worthy of jail time.
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