It must be hard for filmmakers to constantly have to find a new sport from which to form a Sports Movie around. Even the niche sport of curling has been explored in the Canadian movie “Men With Brooms”. In the absence of new sports, filmmakers have resorted to making movies around established sports, but with a different spin. The British did it with “Mean Machine”, which set soccer in prison, and “Bend it Like Beckham”, which set soccer around girls. The Japanese, meanwhile, introduced boys to synchronized swimming in “Waterboys”.
The Japanese movie “Ping Pong” is set in the high-pressure world of high school ping-pong (or table tennis, as it’s also called). But beyond the techniques and inner workings of ping-pong, the movie is better described as a film about friendship with ping-pong balls. The game itself seems like minor diversions, useful only to explore our characters and their relationships to each other, to the world, and ultimately with themselves.
The two characters at the heart of “Ping Pong” are Hoshino and Tsukimoto, nicknamed Peco and Smile, respectively. Peco (Yosuke Kubozuka) is a carefree, devil-may-care dreamer with ambitions of being the world’s best ping-pong player. His buddy Smile (Arata) is given the nickname because he never smiles, and in fact Peco only remembers one time that Smile has smiled, and it was so long ago that Peco can’t recall it. Although ping-pong means everything to Peco, he rarely practices. Smile could care less about ping-pong, but through practice and hard work, he’s become a better player than Peco, although he refuses to allow his best friend to know it.
You see, Smile finds beating Peco in the sport Peco loves so much (and which Smile only considers as a good time filler) to be a betrayal of the worst kind. Not only did Peco introduce Smile to the sport, but also Peco is a personal hero to Smile, ever since the other boy rescued him from bullies. The boys’ new coach sees Smile’s potential and tries to force him into accepting his raw talents, but this seems like a lost cause to everyone except the coach. It’s only after a tournament with cross-town rival Kazama that Peco finally sees what Smile can do, and this realization shatters his confidence to the point where he gives up the game entirely. Also, the boys’ friendship dissolves.
“Ping Pong” has, at its core, a very mature screenplay by Kankuro Kudo. The boys act their age, with Peco bouncing off walls with his unbridled enthusiasm, and Smile trapped in a spiral of disinterest of his own making. Smile’s image of Peco is forever of Peco as a young boy, wearing a hero mask, and coming to save Smile from bullies. The intimate relationship between them is understated, and in fact it’s never stated out loud. Deep inside they both know the tenuous nature of their friendship, but it takes a tournament with strangers to bring everything out into the open.
There is some comedy to be had, but “Ping Pong” is more charming and insightful than funny. The inclusion of Shido Nakamura (Kazama) adds to the maturity level of the screenplay. Kazama is the local champion, a player who considers each match a matter of life and death, and hates himself for his inability to just enjoy the game. Perennial Hong Kong sidekick Sam Lee (“Bio Zombie”) co-stars as a Chinese player brought to Japan with the express purpose of defeating Kazama. Sam Lee’s character has his own baggage and demons to deal with, and to the screenplay’s credit, Lee probably gets more characterization in this foreign movie than he ever did in his native Hong Kong.
There are a lot of things that could have gone wrong with “Ping Pong”. Director Fumihiko Sori could have gone overboard with the ping-pong matches and thrown in obscene amounts of CGI to enhance the game. He doesn’t, and I couldn’t really tell you if any of the games were computer assisted, although I suspect some were. The point is, the special effects aren’t so many that they take away from the film. Sori, a first time director, shows off a very sure directorial style, and the movie strikes a perfect balance of comedy, charm, maturity, and enthusiasm.
I can’t stress enough how good “Ping Pong” is. Anyone who has been a teen knows what the characters are going through. The easily excitable Peco, who refuses to sing the entire chorus to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (he just sings the “Born” part), is someone we know — a kid who is passionate about something, and yet refuses to take it seriously. Smile, who shows talent and promise, but lacks the ambition to make it happen. And then there’s Kazama, who takes something so seriously, he forgets why he began doing it in the first place.
“Ping Pong” is terrific and readily accessible. The screenplay by Kankuro Kudo, coupled with Fumihiko Sori’s assured direction, results in an unforgettable film. Watch “Waterboys” for the laughs, but watch “Ping Pong” for everything else.
Fumihiko Sori (director) / Kankuro Kudo (screenplay)
CAST: Yosuke Kubozuka …. Peco
Arata …. Smile
Sam Lee …. China
Shido Nakamura …. Dragon
Koji Ogura …. Akuma