Sports films are, perhaps by their very nature, ripe for parody, as several silly Will Ferrell escapades (among others) have proven. It's a somewhat finer line to attempt to extract some real comedy out of the sports genre while also attempting to craft something akin to real feeling, and real, feeling characters, not to mention attempt a little insight into an immigrant minority. Ping Pong Playa may not totally succeed in all of these ambitious attempts, but under the sure guidance of Oscar winning director Jessica Yu, the film delivers some appealing comedy elements ably supported by a host of winning performances that at least slightly illuminates what it means to be a Chinese American.
Playa is the story of Chinese American gangsta wannabe Christopher Wang (Jimmy Tsai), son of upper middle class Chinese immigrant parents who run a ping pong shop in southern California. Chris, in an attempt to bolster his street cred, has adopted a hip-hop patois as well as the moniker "C-Dub." In one of several none too subtle swipes at the hypocrisy of some people's insistence about what constitutes racism, C-Dub marches around disparaging those who see him only in terms of Chinese stereotypes, while he himself takes on about every black gangsta stereotype imaginable.
Chris is soon revealed to be the epitome of slackerdom, a kid who can't hold down a job and still harbors resentments about not having been supported in his dream of being the first Chinese American NBA player. His elder brother Michael (Roger Fan) is, as first-born children often are, the "perfect" son, not only studying to be a doctor but also the regional ping pong champion, a yearly title he fights for and wins in order to exploit the marketing potential for his parents' livelihood. Early in the film Michael and Mrs. Wang (Elizabeth Sung) are temporarily distracted when they drive by a parking lot where they see Chris, who is supposed to be at a mall job from which he's been fired, riding an impossibly tiny motor scooter while hanging out with his best friend Kevin (Romeo Brown). That causes them to be involved in a minor fender bender which nonetheless results in wrist injuries for both Wangs, leaving Michael unable to adequately defend his ping pong title and Mrs. Wang unable to teach her ping pong class. Guess who has to step up and assume some familial responsibility, while learning a little bit about growing up and "doing the right thing?"
There's nothing exceptionally groundbreaking in Ping Pong Playa's setup or its foregone triumphant conclusion. What sets the film apart is an admirable sweetness of spirit, highlighted by the incredibly amicable persona of Jimmy Tsai as Chris (Tsai also co-wrote the script). Part manchild goof, part angst ridden teen, Chris is a kid in a man's body, something brought home as he slowly becomes a mentor to the children signed up for Mrs. Wang's ping pong class. Tsai brings an ease and naturalness to the role that never overwhelms the admittedly lighter than light comedic elements. The rapport between Tsai and Brown is palpable, and brings a multi-racial element into the film that is handled for the most part very well. Kevin is attempting to learn Mandarin for business reasons, all the time while "C-Dub" is attempting to make himself over as a gangsta, setting up a nice dialectic of various minority classes responding to their surroundings in various ways. This is dealt with up front in a couple of excellent scenes, especially toward the climax when Mrs. Wang's prissy friends, not exactly Chris' greatest fans, are given a little more information by Kevin (in halting Mandarin) about the wayward Wang son's better characteristics.
Sung and Jim Lau as the elder Wangs do some very nice work as hardworking, first generation immigrants who are hoping to meld their sons into a "one size fits all" American Dream, something that Chris doesn't feel he's especially well cut out for. The kids at Mrs. Wang's ping pong school are all adorable, of course, headed by a very sweet Andrew Vo as Felix, who becomes Chris' comrade in arms in a funny betting scheme that, for a moment at least, gives Chris a little disposable income. Smith Cho as Felix's older sister Jennifer, with whom Chris starts a halting relationship, gives a beautifully funny performance that is spunky and sexy and augurs well for better roles down the pike. Jon Howard, evidently Ron Howard's nephew based on some in jokes in the film, is also on hand as a somewhat befuddled television interviewer.
If Ping Pong Playa falters somewhat, especially in its too fey "villain" and his henchman (Peter Paige and Scott Lowell), it at least does creditable service to a family's attempts to cohere and make good in this ostensible land of opportunity. It's a neat little multi-generational story pointing out how parents' best intentions may end up "creating a monster," though in this instance one who's redeemed with a little table tennis.
Playa's 1080p AVC 1.85:1 transfer belies its probable shoestring budget, with an at times overly grainy image (there's also one brief insert shot of Cho during the final showdown match that is burdened either with incredible amounts of grain or, more probably--but for an unknown reason--excessive digital noise). Colors are good, with excellent saturation, and overall detail is fine, if not remarkable. This isn't high def "material" in any case, but the film really isn't exceptional looking to begin with.
Luckily the DTS HD-MA 5.1 mix is considerably better. While rear channel use is reserved mostly for the thumping hip-hop music that frequents the film, there are also the occasional fun effects, especially in the zinging sounds of ping pongs flying to and fro. Dialogue and non-hip-hop underscore are all well reproduced. English and Spanish subtitles are available.
An above average commentary by Yu and the evidently inexhaustible Tsai is offered. Two brief featurettes, both seeming to be improv "riffs" on some material used in the film, are also on hand, including some faux commercials featuring C-Dub. A trailer is also included.
Ping Pong Playa's inherent sweetness wins out over any qualms over its occasional cliches and less than hilarious comedy. It's slight, to be sure, but it has such an abundance of heart it becomes next to impossible not to like it. Parents of younger children should be forewarned that it does contain some questionable language, "bleeped" with a series of gag sound effects. Worldly kids older than 10 or so should love this film (mine did), and parents will find a lot to enjoy here, too. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet