After a string of documentaries, including “In the Realms of the Unreal,” and an Academy Award win for Best Documentary Short, Jessica Yu makes an unlikely, deceptively slight narrative feature debut with “Ping Pong Playa.” What’s perhaps most surprising about the film, however, is that Yu (who has also directed a fair amount of television drama) is actually quite adept as a comedy director. Adhering to well-worn underdog sports humor, her film follows the slow, amiable rise of Christopher “C-dub” Wang, a slacking Asian American with more of a penchant for the urban culture of hip-hop and basketball than for his family’s business and passion: ping-pong.
The film coyly announces itself as a character comedy of indie pedigree in its first act, as C-dub advises his eleven-year old friend Felix that “unless you want to become the Chinese Napoleon Dynamite, get out of ping pong.” Whether this line is intended to foster or preempt “Ping Pong Playa”‘s most obvious pull-quote, C-dub’s self-deprecating, yet highly revealing advice says a lot about the film. The plot will, of course, be all but dispensable: C-dub’s slacking inadvertently threatens his family’s ping pong supply business and reputation for expertise in the sport, and so he must step up his ping pong game, coaching a band of young table tennis misfits and winning the National “Golden Cock” Table Tennis Tournament (and, in the process, “the girl”) in order to save the day. With this paper-thin pretext, the film rests entirely on the shoulders of an abrasive, clueless, yet oddly charming protagonist.
And, as such, C-dub is sufficiently winning to carry the proceedings. Played by Jimmy Tsai, who co-wrote the film with Yu and whose prior production experience has largely been in the accounting department, C-dub successfully fits the model of many SNL-style comic characters: quick-witted yet naively single-minded, unscrupulous yet largely well-intentioned, buffoonish yet ultimately attractive to whatever love interest the narrative presents him with.
Like all other films of its type, “Ping Pong Playa” falls back on sometimes obvious and occasionally pointless jokes (like C-dub’s repeated and tasteless mockery of an obese kid of about twelve), but it’s mostly a little shrewder about stereotypes than your typical slacker comedy, deriving its edge from Yu and Tsai’s mining of the cultural specificity of Asian-America for laughs. Not only are there the obvious amusing disjunctions that result from the slight C-dub’s endless smack-talk and claims of b-ball prowess, as well as the odd pairing of ping pong playing with a hip-hop soundtrack, but the film also smuggles in a wealth of detail about Asian-American life. C-dub’s father loudly sings Chinese opera while wokking up Spam for breakfast and his mother endures other Chinese mothers bragging about their own children over fit-balls at the gym.
Similarly, the film knowingly manipulates common Chinese stereotypes: C-dub’s older brother is the dutiful son and hard-working doctor, while C-dub himself wears an “I Speak English” t-shirt and is adamant about proving that Chinese culture is more than just “math, martial arts, and moo-shoo pork.” In some ways, small comic sketches such as these, slight as they can be, reveal as much about Asian-American life as a documentary might, though admittedly with more jokes about “Free Willy,” Yao Ming, and “The Bad News Bears.”