Film Review: Ping Pong

Posted on: 26 June 2012 by Tony Kirwood

Tony Kirwood reviews Ping Pong - a fascinating trip to the Over 80s Ping Pong Championships that proves competitive spirit never leaves you.

A group of disparate people from across the world prepare for a big event, come together and eventually triumph through adversity. It all sounds a bit of a sporting movie cliché. What makes the documentary “Ping Pong” (director Hugh Hartford) different is that the contestants are all over 80 – many of them well over. The adversity, of course, is their own failing bodies.

Eight senior citizens get ready in their own way for the Over 80s Ping Pong Championships in China. British Les lifts weights and recites poetry. Lisa from Houston has her own coach and inspects her roomful of medals. Mongolian Sun, however, cheerfully carries on smoking and drinking and Australian Dorothy (100) bathes in the media attention.

They seem to have found Ping Pong late in their lives, often as a way of fighting the trials of old age. German Ursula’s discovery of the game has cured her dementia. Terry, after fifteen years of recurring cancer and asbestos-related troubles, battles on with the bat as he gasps for breath. 

Don’t think that, because the years have piled on, the competitive spirit has dropped off. We see the same body language as at Wimbledon or the World Cup: the tiger crouch, the eagle eye, the clenched arm, the palm-outstretched victory glide. This is serious stuff. The stadium is full of 2000 avid spectators and the Chinese TV coverage is large scale. The excitement is genuine.

Hugh Hartford wisely lets the contestants and their families tell the story. The tone is objective and understated. He eschews backstage tantrums and liaisons - with these contestants you’re not going to get any – as there’s plenty of drama round the tables. 

There are some touching images of youth and age. Les eagerly chats with a group of young rollerbladers in the streets. His inner teenager released, he dances through the fountains in the square. A curious toddler follows him through.

Some win, some don’t. Les and Swedish Rune, pipped in the singles, triumph in the doubles. Terry, let down by his breathing in the singles, also wins a doubles title. “Ping Pong”, to be shown at Olympic sites and supported by the Wellcome Trust, clearly has designs to uplift us. What’s inspiring, though, is not the beauty of the game and the life-changing effects of competing, but the grit of simply carrying on.

At the end, Terry, recovering after another bout of cancer, flexes his biceps painfully to keep his body going. We wish power to his elbow, but of course this is something he’s doing for himself. 

“Ping Pong” will be released in the UK on July 6th. 

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