Cinema Review – Ping Pong
Do you know anything about ping pong? Beyond what I’ve seen in Forrest Gump, I knew absolutely nothing. Until I watched Hugh Hartford’s moving, very often hilarious and, colour me a little bit shocked, riveting documentary Ping Pong.
Filmed over the course of the international over 80s Table Tennis Championships in China, and the events leading up to it, the documentary focuses on a select few of the competitors, including Les from England, an 89 year-old seven time champion who shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, Austrian-American Lisa Modlich who has a very fierce competitive streak, and, incredibly enough, 100 year-old Australian gold medalist Dorothy deLow who appears to have a bigger fanbase than most pop stars. We also follow the stories of two German competitors, a Swede, another Brit called Terry, and a chain-smoking gentleman from China, all of them adamant that table tennis is not only good for the body, but for the soul.
Hartford has great skill at piecing together slices of a wider story without much narration at all, and even though the film doesn’t feel invasive, it doesn’t shy away from the whole truth and really getting into the nooks and crannies (or should I say, grannies – har har) of this world that is a really huge deal worldwide. Never knew such a huge tournament existed? Neither did I. It’s massive too – fifty or so tables are set up in the competition hall, and players are herded in and out quick as cattle to play fierce and skilled games in stages leading up to the finals. This isn’t a leisurely game of bowling on the green, either. These old folks have fire in them, and the medals are extremely coveted. Insults and death-stares are thrown behind backs; feisty Lisa Modlich is behind most of them, mind. Beyond styling her hair and practicing her wrist action, her favourite thing is apparently slagging people off on camera. And it’s hilarious.
Besides the quests for victory and the detailed insight into training for the tournament, another side of the documentary highlights not only the way the sport is viewed by the families of the competitors, but how ping pong has changed the lives of these elderly people for the better. One German lady takes us on a tour of the care home she lived in after the death of her husband, and talks about how grief pulled her down into illness and lost memory, and how table tennis later improved both her physical and mental health and her life has changed completely because of it. It’s these human stories of life, ailing and death that really bring this documentary above the pure novelty of ‘old people playing a funny sport’; it’s very touching, and it’s as much about the competition as it is about life’s journey in the later years.
Ping Pong is in cinemas 6th July. It is screening at the East end Film Festival this week, and is also part of the Cultural Olympiad this summer