Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei
Director: Sori Fumihiko
Screenplay: Kudo Kankuro
Cast: Kubozuka Yosuke, Arata, Sam Lee, Ookura Koji
Year Released: 2002
Runtime: 114 min
Rating: **½ (out of four stars)
Based on a Japanese manga of the same title (drawn by Taiyo Matsumoto), Ping Pong, as the name suggests, is about table tennis. The marketing for the film seems to portray it as the typical sports comedy - high-octane sports sequences peppered with laughs along the way (and usually some tears somewhere along the line too). This is not what Ping Pong is - it is undoubtedly a sports movie, but one that moves at a languorous pace, and rather contemplative in nature. It will probably not satisfy audiences that are looking for light entertainment, and its highly likely the only people who will truly enjoy this film will be fans of the manga itself.
Best friends Peco (the wildly popular Yosuke Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata) - who is called that because he doesnt - have been playing ping pong since young. Peco is talented and always out to win, but Smile simply views the sport as a game, and as a chance to spend some time with Peco, whom he looks up to. What Peco doesnt realize is that Smile is actually an even better player, but has been intentionally losing to him all this while. Their school coach Butterfly Joe (Naoto Takenaka - last seen in Waterboys in almost an exact copy of this role) is convinced that he can turn Smile into a winner at the upcoming tournament, but Smile just doesnt seem to have enough fight in him to do so.
At the tournament, Peco and Smile are pitted against some of the best players around - China (Sam Lee), a Hong Kong player that has been booted off the China national team, and has decided to come to Japan to attempt a comeback; and Akuma (Koji Okura), who trains very hard, but isnt as naturally talented as the rest. Then there is two-time winner Dragon (Shido Nakamura), who seems to be totally committed to winning, and locks himself in the toilet before every match to ready his mind. Peco is defeated in this tournament, and starts to go to seed until his mentor Obaba (Mari Natsuki) shakes him out of his funk. Months go by and another tournament is imminent - who will claim top spot this time round?
Ping Pong is actually a very predictable movie - sports movies dont really deviate much from the standard victory-defeat-training-victory plot line, and Ping Pong is no different. Nothing is ever really that unpredictable, except perhaps for the denouement, and none of the characters perform in ways that would surprise the audience. Yet, for a film so firmly seated in the genre, Ping Pong takes a darned long time to get going - almost half of the 114-minute film is devoted to creating the relatively uninteresting back story of the characters. Director Fumihiko Masuri is a big fan of the manga, and in his devotion to the source, he has tried to put in too much of the series into the film. Its a double-edged sword - take out too much of the story, and the film becomes less meaningful; but take out too little, and the film sags under its own weight.
It also doesnt help that the audience is not given a payoff when it comes to the table tennis sequences. After waxing lyrical over the skills of the various opponents, the dynamism of the game is mostly lost in the extreme close ups and slow motion shots of the film. It may have been quite difficult to capture the essence of a game like table tennis, but Masuris camera-in-the-face style means that the competitive nature of the sport is also diminished. Also, although the film is sporadically funny, its almost Zen-like at times, and some of the plot threads are left still dangling at the end of the film. Its a surprisingly heavy film to pass off as a comedy, and as I watched the film I suspected that reading the source manga beforehand would probably have enhanced my appreciation of the film. As it is, however, Ping Pong is but a mediocre sports film, and certainly wont make any new fans of the sport.
Final Word: Running way too long for its own good, Ping Pong is entertaining at times, but the slow pacing and heavy subject matter will be too weighty for some.