A hit earlier this year during its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, this sweet little movie is ostensibly about the 15th-annual over-80 World Veterans Championship table-tennis tournament held two years ago in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. But really it’s about mankind’s never-ending ability, at once brilliant and perverse, to invest meaning in seemingly insignificant things and activities. Like Ping-Pong, a game usually played in basement family rooms or campus rec centres by participants under the influence of libations, popcorn and giggles.
Of course, like anything, popular or niche, playing table tennis at a high level requires plenty of skill and seriousness, all of which are much in evidence over the course of Ping Pong’s 73 minutes. England’s Hartford brothers focus on eight gamesters – four men and four women with a combined age of 703 years – as they and fellow Ping-Pongers from more than 50 countries prepare for, travel to and participate in what turns out to be a smashing good time for them and us.
There’s Les D’Arcy, seven-time world champion, a superbly conditioned, muscle-flexing 89-year-old who, when he’s not spouting poetry, pursues a punishing daily fitness regimen. And 81-year-old Terry Donlon, the reigning champ who, after surviving prostate and kidney cancer in the late 1990s, is now battling terminal lung and bone cancer. Sweden’s Rune Forsberg, 87, was a silver finalist in three previous tournaments and, in his cool Scandinavian way, is hungrier than ever for gold. Sun Yong Qing, 80, Inner Mongolia’s champ, is confident he can best the Caucasians even as his daughter nags him for smoking and drinking too much.
Stuttgart’s Ursula Bihl, meanwhile, is the reigning world female champion at 89. “I would like to die at the table-tennis table,” she declares. Her competitors include fellow German Inge Hermann, 89, for whom Ping-Pong has been the key weapon in her fight against dementia; Australia’s Dorothy DeLow, wheelchair-bound at 100 and the oldest player in the tournament; and the film’s Cruella de Vil, 85-year-old Lisa Modlich, the U.S. champ who swaggers with a take-no-prisoners intensity. Watching Bihl, she snarks: “I don’t care how good she is, I should get her. She can’t move.” And get her she does, slamming the ball again and again into the far corners where Bihl simply lacks the get-up to go.
Blessedly, the Hartfords don’t stint on the chuckles. But they’re of the affectionate variety, commensurate with the documentary’s overall tone, which is respectful and sensitive yet bereft of cloying sentimentality. The film is also quite suspenseful on occasion, never more so than when it’s concentrating on Donlon’s matches. His lungs are shot, to the point you sometimes think he’s going to pass out, but he just keeps on swinging. Another tense moment occurs when D’Arcy, minutes before his final singles joust, discovers that his favourite racket has gone missing and he’ll have to play with his number-two paddle. Skulduggery most heinous? Donlon says he wouldn’t be surprised: “They did it to me in Bratislava in the quarter-final,” he declares. “And I didn’t get it back!”
Ping Pong may not be the greatest table-tennis film ever made. Hell, how many rivals are even out there? I don’t know. Regardless, with its sure and steady yet light hand on issues of mortality and life’s passages, it wins gold. Who knew that knocking a small hollow ball back and forth across a net could be a sort of fount of youthfulness?