A few years back, Jessica Yu made a positively hypnotic documentary called “In The Realms Of The Unreal,” about a painter/writer named Henry Darger, the ultimate outsider artist. I loved that film. I put it on my top ten of the year list. And yet, when she released her first two narrative films in 2007, I didn’t see either of them, and I only just caught up with the first of them last night. And “Ping Pong Playa” couldn’t be more different than “In The Realms Of The Unreal” if it was directed by a different person.
That’s not to say it’s a bad film, because it’s not. Star Jimmy Tsai is also Yu’s co-writer, and it’s a showcase for him as a performer. The film has a nice sense of humor about the Chinese American experience, and seems to speak from an authentic place. At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to enjoy Tsai’s “chigga” persona, but as the film unspools and you see just how much of it is a front, it starts to pay off as a character choice, and Tsai has a lot more going on than is first apparent.
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Yu’s got a nice touch with the young cast, and even though this is fairly familiar territory about an underdog who has to be snapped out of his own bad habits before he can finally embrace his potential, it’s told well. Smith Cho plays the romantic interest, the big sister to one of Chris “C-Dub” Wang’s young students. He’s a wannabe basketball player, convinced that it’s just his race that has conspired to keep him out of the NBA. His entire family besides him are focused on ping-pong: his father runs a ping-pong supply store, his mother teaches a ping-pong class at the Chinese community center, and his brother is a multi-year ping-pong champion, whose continued success is what feeds both the class and the store. When Chris causes an accident that sidelines his brother and his mother, he’s forced to teach her class, and in doing so, he learns some hard lessons about what he’s really good at and what he could be doing with his abilities. Like I said… you’ve seen this sort of thing before.
The film must have been fairly low budget. On BluRay, some of the limitations of the source material are sorely obvious. No matter, though. It’s a charming film, and now I’m doubly interested in “Protagonist,” the other narrative film that Yu directed. I think she’s a director people should be paying attention to.