When seven-year-old Bilike discovers a ping pong ball floating in the stream, he's astounded. Growing up as a nomad Mongolia's grasslands, he has never seen such an object before. What could it be? Ah, see how it shines with the light, surely it is a Glowing Pearl.
So begins "Mongolian Ping Pong," a film that sounds like it's a modern day "The Gods Must Be Crazy," only not funny. (Well, neither was "The Gods Must Be Crazy," but "Ping Pong" is, you know, not funny on purpose.) Yet occasional dips into the quirkiness the occurs when the nomadic lifestyle confronts the modern aside, this film has little in common with the African comedy. That was a broad, slapstick-heavy yuk-fest; "Ping Pong" intends to be a quiet meditation on the little things in life.
It's also dreadfully dull. Rookie writer/director Hao Ning aims to find a peace in his story, yet he lingers too long, each scene dragging beyond its gentle charms and into a tired monotony. He also attempts a children's eye viewpoint, telling most of the story from the point of view of Bilike (played by Hurichabilike, who, like all his fellow castmates, has never acted before) and his friends, who embark on a minor journey to return the ball to Beijing once they discover its purpose (they mistake an unseen television reporter's description of it as "the national ball") yet don't get very far. There's supposed to be an innocence to the boys' rambunctiousness and a tender glee to their discoveries, but Hao fails to let the excitement of the moment shine through.
Consider the final shot - which should be enough of a warning to let those of you not wanting to have the contents of such a scene revealed to you in advance that you'll want to skip to the next paragraph - consider the final shot, in which Bilike curiously wanders, finally, into a room filled with ping pong players. We do not see them, but only hear them, and this grand revelation must be displayed entirely on the face of the young actor. Yet Hurichabilike delivers nothing but a blank stare. Not even the remotest curious look, not even the body language equivalent of a "huh, whaddya know." Here is the discovery of a young lifetime, a scene meant to floor us with its revelation and how this growing child absorbs such shocking information, yet we get nothing. Perhaps the idea is to project onto him our own ideas of how he should react? Perhaps Hao wanted to maintain his sense of distance? Or perhaps it's just a serious blunder, perfectly encapsulating an entire movie which wants to overwhelm us with simple wonders yet fails to connect emotionally?
Other themes stumble as well. An opening joke, repeated near the end, has the nomads posing for pictures in front of phony backdrops of Tiananmen Square and other famous locales; the joke is they're not really there, only we're not supposed to realize it until the camera pulls away. It's an old gag given no new life in this retelling, and the sudden move from busy city to middle-of-nowhere lacks the impact it intends.
Later, a subplot involves a father's attempts to incorporate Western technology into his simple life, yet what is supposed to be charming is instead wearisome, the same look-at-the-yokel-try-the-fancy-modern-life gags that you might expect from a "Beverly Hillbillies" rerun. Is this a chance to show how a shrinking world has finally caught up to those who have lived on the outskirts of society, or is this a chance to simply point and giggle at simple folk? Hao is so intent on focusing on his quiet tone that he neglects to point his story in any workable direction.
At least it's something for the eyes. "Ping Pong" consists almost entirely of gorgeous shots of the Mongolian landscape and the endless sky above, and for that, it should be applauded. This is a stunning visual work, a view of a world untouched by modern life - according to several sources, the Chinese title, "Lü cao di," translates to "green pastures" - and the HD cinematography from Jie Du is everything the rest of the movie should have been: lush, vibrant, overcome by the beauty of simplicity. But the story itself refuses to fill us with those feelings, and instead Hao confuses boredom with awe, pretty scenery for impressive drama.
Disappointingly, the film's lone asset, its magnificent photography, gets a mediocre treatment here. The widescreen (1.85:1) presentation is non-anamorphic, and there's some ghosting and aliasing throughout, evident pretty much anytime anyone moves at all. The digital video source does allow for the image to be crisp and bright throughout; too bad the transfer doesn't make the most of it.
The Dolby stereo mix is effective, although the sparse music and dialogue don't really need much. English subtitles are burned into the print and therefore disappear if you try to beat the non-anamorphic transfer by zooming in.
The "Director's Introduction" is one page of text giving a minute Mongolian history lesson and a quick bit about how he admires the freedom the nomad children have. Hao gets another page of text for the short "Director's Biography." The "Photo Gallery" consists of nine - count 'em, just nine - stills from the movie, and not even the best shots, either.
First Run pads out the disc by including a page about itself and a page about the Asia Society, with which it has joined to help import more Asian cinema. Finally, four trailers for other First Run releases are included.
Even if the film was better, First Run's shoddy presentation makes the disc worthless - it's impossible to enjoy the sweeping visuals on this iffy disc, and without those visuals to win you over, the flaws of the story seep through a bit too much. Skip It.