Ping Pong Playa is the bomb, yo. With a quirky, offbeat story that sends up sports movies but wears its charm and heart openly on its sleeve, this is the type of film for anyone who loves funny, well-made movies, whether they come from a big studio or, in the case of this film, are produced on a small budget.
In the film, Jimmy Tsai is Christopher “C-dub” Wang, a Chinese-American gangsta-rapper wannabe with outrageous, and unlikely, dreams of becoming a pro basketball star. Blaming genetics for his failure to make it as an NBA star (in truth, he sucks at roundball) Christopher lives at home with his parents. Mr. and Mrs. Wang run a lucrative ping pong store in Los Angeles and also teach ping pong to local kids. Christopher also lives in the shadow of his older brother, Michael, a doctor and ping pong champion.
Christopher wants nothing to do with ping pong. While he idles away his life at dead end jobs, he dreams of creating his own comic book and someday, his own clothing line. These dreams all involve his best friend, JP Money, played with pizzazz by Khary Payton. But his dreams are mostly talk; the guy is unmotivated, a true slacker. Fate intercedes and Christopher inadvertently causes a car accident that injures both Michael and their mom. Forced to take over his momâ€™s ping pong classes, Christopher becomes a role model to some awkward kids being forced to take lessons. From there, the film takes off and Christopher eventually has to enter the big ping pong tournament to defend his family’s honor. In doing this, he discovers something about himself and gradually grows out of being a manchild and finally becomes a man.
Ping Pong Playa is directed with a sure hand by Academy Award-winning director Jessica Yu (who won for the best documentary short, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark Oâ€™Brien). The genesis of the film came from three sources: 1) the character of C-Dub, who was created for a series of web commercials by Tsai, 2) the desire of producer Joan Huang to film a ping pong comedy, and 3) Yuâ€™s idea to merge the two together. From there, Yu and Tsai went off and wrote the script. The writers hit every moment perfectly with this heartwarming, yet not sugary script. Every character in the movie is well rounded and fully conceived.
A great cast, including several excellent children actors, was assembled to create these believable characters. Although he created C-dub, there was some question whether Tsai, who previously had no film acting experience, could carry the film. But Tsai is a genuine star in the making. He carries the entire movie on his shoulders with ease and makes the film worth watching by himself. But there are other great performances, including Jim Wau, as Mr. Wang. Wau has a subtle touch, in particular during his scenes with Tsai which are true to the spirit of any movie father/son relationship. The little moments in the film are especially moving, like when Mr. Wang enters Christopherâ€™s pig sty of a room and finds his son sleeping away the morning with his Playstation still on from the night before. Instead of raising a stink, Mr. Wang covers Christopher with a blanket and shuts off the television. Itâ€™s as if the father understands that his son is searching for his place in the world; he is trying to be patient.
Another standout is Payton, a fine actor who nails each of his scenes perfectly. Whenever JP Money is on camera, everything lights up. His smile is infectious and his optimistic and loving spirit is something to be treasured.Â He and Tsai carry on as if theyâ€™ve known each other their entire lives. I know theyâ€™re acting (because I have no idea whether the two knew each other before this film) but how they carry on is so genuine that there is no doubt that these two movie characters care for each other and love each other like brothers.
Technically, Ping Pong Playa gets everything right. The camera work is fluid and not showy, utilizing locations throughout the Los Angeles area. The filmâ€™s pace moves along briskly, yet allows for emotional moments to breath. Finally, the soundtrack is full of some sweet rap songs that address the Chinese American experience.
Although, at heart, a family film (which can be restrictive in the amount of foul language) Yu decided to keep things real and allow the actors/characters to speak like real human beings (i.e. curse like we normal folk are prone to do). However, the hardcore curse words are covered up by the sound of a basketball slamming against the pavement. This was a clever way to keep he film safe for younger ears while not cheating the characters. I applaud this move. Ping Pong Playa has a PG-13 rating and I would say, if youâ€™ve let your kids watch School of Rock, then you should have no problem with C-dub and company.
There are times when a small film comes my way and I feel that itâ€™s my obligation to pass along the good word to anyone whoâ€™ll listen to me. After watching with a smile plastered on my face for its duration, two thoughts crossed my mind after watching Ping Pong Playa: 1) Why wasnâ€™t this film a hit? 2) Everyone should rent or buy this movie. Hopefully, by everyone doing number 2, we can make number 1 become a reality.