You mightn’t be blamed for expecting that a documentary about competitive octogenarian ping pong might be just a tad slow, a trifle sedate perhaps, but in the case of Hugh Hartford’s debut feature Ping Pong you wouldn’t be more wrong! This unassuming little film manages to pack a surprising amount drama and action into its spry 80 min runtime, sporting a story structure which engages easily and is paced superbly. Yeah, I’d urge you to take a second look.
The film follows a structure very similar to that used in Jeffrey Blitz’s also excellent 2002 documentary Spellbound. Both filmmakers profile one-by-one a number of key competitors in an upcoming tournament. Each distinct character thread is interwoven as the broader narrative unfolds culminating in the climatic competitive event. Ironically, where Spellbound applies this structure to the stories of a group of young children set to compete in the US National Spelling Bee Ping Pong tracks the fortunes of a motley international bunch of over 80s Table Tennis players to the 2010 World Championship in Inner Mongolia! Hartford hits pay dirt with his subjects who turn out to be real characters, fleshing out the narrative feel of this documentary story.
Austrian-turned-Texan Lisa is the super-competitive ‘bad girl’: confident and competent with a wickedly sharp sense of humour. 89 year old Les D’Arcy is the ‘mystic warrior’ with his insane fitness regime–scenes of him weightlifting have to be seen to be believed–and moments of philosophic introspection while his sometime doubles partner Terry Donlon is ‘the underdog’ overcoming his severe lung problems and a near death experience to play on in the tournament.
Aside from the excellent character drama and moments of novelty–the oldest competitor in the tournament is Australian role-model Dorothy DeLow who, at 101 years of age, is not much of a competitive threat anymore but is an inspirational media draw!–Ping Pong also provides a surprisingly poignant meditation on mortality as each of the competitors reflects upon the positive role of the sport in their later life whilst facing down the unremitting encroachment of age. Add to the film’s other merits a somewhat artful shooting style; plenty of interesting set-ups and camera work eschewing any danger of being grouped with an overload of low production value infomentaries.
Hartford’s film is a moving document of life lived to the full; surprising in the best way possible. Ping Pong may not quite be of the calibre to make an annual top 10 list but it surely is a film you’ll be glad you stumbled into.
Rating: PG Coarse language.