“Mongolian Ping Pong” was the second film from Chinese director Ning Hao, whose next effort “Crazy Stone” went on to be one of the country’s biggest and best hits of 2006. However, despite its title, which seems to suggest some kind of wacky sports action, “Ping Pong” is actually a documentary style look at that favourite subject of Chinese directors, the lives of people in remote rural Mongolia. Although the film did not receive much exposure in its native land, it enjoyed some success in the West, playing at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005 and winning praise from critics for its naturalistic approach.
The basic plot of the film sees a motorbike riding young boy coming across a ping pong ball floating in a stream one day, which his grandmother tells him is a magical ‘glowing pearl’. He shows it to his two friends, and the three try to figure out exactly what it does, a mystery which is partly solved thanks to a garbled television broadcast on the sport which describes it as the national pastime. Unfortunately, the three young lads take the wrong end of the stick, and decide that their new treasure is in fact a lost ‘national ball’ which they need to return to Beijing, and they set out to make the long journey for the good of the country.
It becomes clear from the very first frame that “Mongolian Ping Pong” is pretty much the polar opposite of the frantic “Crazy Stone”, being based around long, unhurried shots of gorgeous Mongolian vistas, and Ning quietly makes the most of the vast, rolling plains and hills. Indeed, almost nothing happens in the first hour, with the film being content to simply follow the three boys as they amble around the landscape and get on with their daily lives. Even the narrative regarding the ball and the decision to return it to Beijing, when it finally kicks in, is unobtrusive and plays a very minor part in the proceedings.
As such, the film can perhaps be seen as an attempt to tell a story without any kind of artificial drama, and in this it is successful, though in doing so Ning sacrifices what may traditionally be thought of as entertainment value. As a result, the film is most likely to appeal to the art house crowd, or at least to patient viewers willing to give themselves over to its almost hypnotically uneventful charms.
This is not to say that the film is without interest, and Ning packs in plenty of local colour and songs to give a convincing and believable depiction of life in the region. Thematically, the film subtly explores the encroachment of technology on the lives of the farmers, with the television and motorbike looking startlingly incongruous against their more basic tools and the lush green grass. In a nice touch, Ning underlines the isolation and distance from the rest of China through scenes of the locals posing for photographs in front of large paintings of famous national landmarks such as Tiananmen Square, as well as some from other countries, all of which are effectively a world away. In doing so, he cleverly acknowledges the main purpose of the film itself and also its limitations, providing a picture of life in a distant region, though one which is seen and perceived through the eye of the beholder rather than through actual personal experience.
The basic premise at the heart of “Mongolian Ping Pong” gives it an eccentric feel which does carry with it a vague sense that Ning may have been somewhat patronising towards his innocent and naÃ¯ve seeming subjects, and it never quite rings true that none of the cast, all of whom are perfectly familiar with things such as televisions, films and automobiles, have never heard of ping pong. Of course, the ball in question is obviously intended to be an ironic symbol of how far removed the people of the region are from life in modern China, being compared to their more basic local sports and pastimes, and as such it works well enough in the context of the film.
“Mongolian Ping Pong” serves mainly as a superior example of what might be termed cinematic cultural tourism, with breathtaking visuals and an honest, unhurried attempt to depict the lives of the locals. Whilst it is not recommended for viewers seeking a similarly manic precursor to “Crazy Stone”, or indeed traditional narrative entertainment in general, it should appeal to anyone who enjoyed the likes of “Tuya’s Marriage”, “The Story of the Weeping Camel” or other similarly themed and paced documentary style looks at rural Mongolia.
Hao Ning (director) / Hao Ning (screenplay)