Ping Pong Playa

The following review originally appeared in the September 13, 2008, issue of Northwest Asian Weekly as “Playa toes line between hilarious and offensive.”

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As Christopher “C-dub” Wang, a fast-talking, 20-something ne’er do well still living at home with his parents in suburban LA, Jimmy Tsai—an accountant who here makes his big-screen acting debut—has impeccable comic timing. Tsai co-produced Ping Pong Playa, and he co-wrote the script with the director Jessica Yu. It’s essentially a vehicle for Tsai to strut his hip-hop influenced stuff, tossing out lines like, “Is it fair that Chinese people are short or that we have fewer fast-twitch muscles in our legs?” at warp-drive, motor-mouth speed, as if he’d spent years poetry slamming instead of numbers crunching.

The story follows the familiar sports movie/sitcom patterns of an underachiever impelled by circumstances to rise to a particular occasion, astounding everyone who initially doubted or disparaged his ability to overcome. In this case, C-dub’s older brother, a long-reigning table tennis champion, injures his wrist and therefore can’t compete in the community center’s annual tournament. So C-dub goes to bat—or to paddle—for him.

We know from the start where this kind of genre film will end up; Yu and Tsai nudge the formula a little by beginning with a parody of a public access television talk show, in which C-dub, as the sofa-bound guest, revels in the local-boy-made-good celebrity glow that we’ve yet to see him achieve. Throughout the movie, Yu keeps cutting back to these segments—flash-forward projections of C-dub’s future glory. In the most amusing bit, C-dub challenges the white interviewer’s ignorance about Asian culture. “Charlie Chan isn’t Chinese?” the host (Jonathan Oliver) gapes in disbelief, before looking off-camera to ask some unseen person, “Is that true?”

Tsai doesn’t write all the funny lines for himself. C-dub’s brother Michael (winningly played by Roger Fan) admonishes his slacker sibling to get a job, a real job so that he can afford to “stop living over the garage like some yellow Fonzie.” And the humor, although broadly played, isn’t without one or two moments of feather-tickling subtlety, such as an obese man explaining that his son is too lazy to take ping-pong lessons, and when he thinks he hasn’t made the reason why clear enough, he delicately whispers, “Fat.”

The first half-hour of Ping Pong Playa is so funny, so clever, so well thought out, that it comes at first as a small, then steadily growing disappointment how the pace droops and the agenda sours in the remaining two-thirds. Yu’s film lacks the formal dazzle of Fumihiko Sori’s Ping Pong (her exterior shots shriek of smog; the interiors are equally blanched), yet that isn’t why Playa goes wrong. In any competitive sport, there must be rivals, but must C-dub’s rivals be portrayed as swishy, effete homosexuals dressed in pastels with upturned collars? And why do Tsai and Yu insist not only that the movie’s chief villain be a gay (white) man, but that he’s racist as well? “Still smokin’ the opium, old man?” the designated antagonist snaps at C-dub’s father. (Were Peter Paige and Scott Lowell, the Queer as Folk alumni who reinforce these caricatures, so desperate for work that they would perpetuate homophobia?)

All the white characters in the movie are buffoons of one sort or another. But it seems too easy—even in a kids’ comedy—to trot out racism as a defining trait. The blonde-haired white woman who organizes the ping-pong tournament (her blue eyes twinkle with exaggerated malicious intent) cruelly mocks the heavily-accented English of a young Chinese broadcaster, then delivers part of her welcome speech in dialect. The movie, thus, winds up preaching the kind of social unity that’s achieved through divisiveness, if not through out-and-out segregation. Yu makes her points about cultural hegemony (she has one Asian character who vehemently objects to such ersatz racial markers as a “Miss Chinatown” contest), but she and Tsai might ask themselves if trafficking in reverse stereotypes in any way redresses decades of “Charlie Chan” portrayals by the movie industry. – NPT

September 8, 2008

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