This documentary follows eight players as they compete in the World over 80s Table Tennis Championships in Inner Mongolia.
The title doesn’t quite say it all. Yes, Ping Pong is a documentary about table tennis. But the twist to this film is that it centres on competitors who are 80 years and older.
These are people who, quite literally, never say 'die’
Funded by Britain’s Channel Four and Britdoc, it’s a low-tech look at what seems like quite a marginal concept. The opening with 89-year-old weightlifter Les D’Arcy gabbing on about table tennis while appearing on a community radio station, gives off a quaintly Anglo-parochial and even sad feeling. However, as director Hugh Hartford and producer Aaron Hartford extend their focus to include contestants in Germany, Sweden, the United States and (finally an Asian contestant!) Inner Mongolia, it becomes apparent that the pair have unearthed documentary gold. All of the profiled octogenarians not only play table tennis, but are due to converge on the 15th World Veteran Ping Pong championship in Hohhot, China, alongside over 2000 other players from 51 countries. (The next one will be held in Auckland, May 2014, if you want to book your ticket.)
At the actual event, the star of the show is 100-year-old Australian Dorothy DeLow, who due to the fact that she’s unable to move quickly enough to get away, has to spend much of her down-time posing for photographs with a battalion of Chinese autograph hunters. In the words of 80-year-old Mongolian Sun Yong Qing as he contemplates Dorothy playing in the semi-finals: 'If I can still stand up when I’m 100, I’ll be happy." (And given his tobacco intake he’d have a right.)
The activity and the longevity of these competitors is the key driving force of the film’s pleasures. For the average Australian, life expectancy is 79 years for males and 84 years for females. So most of the film’s ping pong players have already surpassed what most of us can reasonably expect from life. Another pleasure of the film, though, is not their exceptionality, but their run of the mill humanity including petty name calling, ruthless competitiveness and the occasional snide dig. While that shows that sport’s dark side never entirely vanishes, in amongst the to and fro of the game there’s also the participants’ inspiring gratitude for the zest that table tennis has brought to their lives. And while all of these people are inspiring in their own way, somehow the hands down champion is 89-year-old German first-time contestant, Inge Hermann, who started playing table tennis when she was in early 70s as a way to fight dementia. These are people who, quite literally, never say 'die’.
As a film, however, despite its endearing content, this is not of a particularly high standard. Most of the games are shown with the same degree of sophistication that your Uncle Walter might exhibit when shooting a rellies return match at your Christmas barbecue. But buffed up with some catchy music that recalls the Penguin Café Orchestra (actually composed by Orlando Roberton) and well-edited by John Mister (who started his career as an assistant on Monty Python and the Holy Grail back in the 1970s), Ping Pong is a triumph despite the rough edges.