The mysteries of life are answered in "Ping Pong", an often surreal Japanese film from 2002 that examines the interplay of friendship, loyalty, rivalry, and self-esteem in an arena measuring five feet by nine feet. Based on the popular comic book by Matsumoto Taiyo, which explored the zen of table tennis in meticulous detail, "Ping Pong" has become a cult favorite among fans of Asian film. With its elegant visual dissection of the sport and examination of the differing philosophies among its players, "Ping Pong" is a triumph for first-time director Fumihiko Sori.
The story is centered on the long-standing friendship between two high-school ping-pong players, the arrogant and brazen Peco (Yôsuke Kubozuka of Isao Yukisada's stylish drama "Go") and the quiet and introspective Smile (Arata, who appeared in Hirokazu Koreeda's creepy "Distance"), so-named because he never smiles. Like their clashing personalities, they have contrasting approaches to the game-- whereas Peco wantonly crushes any opponent that dares to cross his path, Smile thinks of it only as a means to pass the time. And though Smile is the more talented player, he frequently and intentionally loses to Peco out of his misguided ideas of friendship. However, this does not sit well with Smile's coach, who is reliving his faded glory days of professional ping pong through his understudy's gift. It also ends up giving Peco an unrealistic impression of how good of a player he actually is.
Unfortunately, the situation comes to a head during an important inter-school championship. Peco ends up being demolished by a strict disciplinarian from a rival school named Dragon (Shido Nakamura), while Smile loses to China (Hong Kong star Sam Lee of "Gen-X Cops"), a professional player who has come to Japan to re-ignite his flagging career.
Down and out, Peco loses his enthusiasm in the game and prefers to waste his days in video arcades. Meanwhile, despite his loss to China, Smile has become the newest celebrity of ping pong, and begins training for the next championship. Not to give away the ending, but as expected in this sort of film, these players end up meeting up again in the film's nail-biting third act, in which long-running rivalries are renewed, new victories are up for grabs, and most important of all, an old friendship is put to the test.
For those viewers familiar with the source material, director Sori has faithfully recreated every panel of the manga in loving detail. Kubozuka and Arata are dead ringers for their comic book counterparts, and the film's in-game sequences seem to tap the energy within each page, with nearly identical shot compositions and the almost-acrobatic moves of the players as they leap through the air and vigorously slice at their opponents. In the world of "Ping Pong", table tennis is a larger-than-life battle among titans, and to convey such scale, Sori has a number of technically impressive shots in his repertoire. In addition to some exquisitely shot slo-mo, Sori employs a 'ping pong' cam that follows the ball as it is being served, as well as the judicious use of CGI for some of the film's more daring shots that put viewers right into the game.
The film is also marked by a number of surrealistic asides to reflect the psyche of the players. From flashback scenes where Peco and Smile imagine each other as a cartoon superhero incarnate, to the withering of butterfly wings on a washed-up player, to a match in which Peco and Dragon attain the purest state of sportsmanship (making peace with the game and between themselves in the process), the film is like a drug-induced existential journey into the spiritual side of the sport.
However, in addition to the film's visceral touches, the film's script provides some interesting character studies of the players that inhabit the world of smoky ping-pong halls and bright high school gymnasiums. Peco's abrasive personality is but a camouflage for his fragile self-esteem, as is Smile's sullen and aloof demeanor. Meanwhile, Dragon is an aggressive player who has had all the enjoyment for the sport disciplined out of him, while China's seemingly impenetrable 'game face' hides indecision and self-doubt. Of course, the script also eloquently addresses the emotional core of the story, the friendship between Peco and Smile, as well as the choices they make because of it. For an already impressive film, this is the icing on the cake.
Since becoming a big hit in Asia during its theatrical run last year, the popularity of "Ping Pong" has only grown since its highly sought-after DVD (multi-region) and VCD releases. Inspiring and entertaining in how it reveals life lessons in the minutiae of competitive table tennis, "Ping Pong" is an impressive debut for director director Fumihiko Sori, and a showcase for the talents of lead actors Kubozuka and Arata. Not a single spin, slam, or chop is wasted.
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