Mongolian Ping Pong
2005Director: Hao Ning
Cast: Hurichabilike, Dawa, Geliban
t won’t take long for anyone watching the sincere (if somewhat leisurely paced) Chinese film, Mongolian Ping Pong, to notice that director Hao Ning is enamored with more than just the story. A long first shot captures the discussion of a Mongolian family casually rearranging itself for a group photo-op in front of a phony backdrop of the Forbidden City (and subsequently the Arc de Triomphe), and it becomes clear that this is a film inhabited by both people and place.
The people, in this case, are primarily children. Bilike is almost 7 years old when he kicks off the film’s plot by discovering a ping pong ball floating down the stream. See, in the grassland heart of Mongolia, ping pong is virtually unknown, and the ball itself is seen as a novelty and a treasure. Bilike and his two best friends argue over what it might be—determining it too white, hollow, and spherical for a bird’s egg. His grandmother pronounces it a glowing pearl, and even religious authorities can’t offer any help. Answers come when a TV program declares ping pong the national sport of China, and without much in the way of dramatic build-up, or logistic planning, the three young boys decide to travel to Beijing and return the ball to the nation.
All of this might read very familiar as a Mongolian version of the coming-of-age road-trip staple, promising a screen full of life lessons, and eccentric cameos both with and without the political and social commentaries—which is exactly what the film never becomes.
As tricky (and beside the point) as it is to identify what exactly Mongolian Ping Pong is, generic and narratively predictable it is not. In fact, the boys get in only one day’s journey from home when they’re picked up and returned home by law enforcement, informed that they were (accidentally) heading toward Russia. Life settles back into predictability again, before Bilike is shipped off to school in a big city.
What happens to him next—between his family’s photos in Beijing and Paris, and his final confrontation with a school full of ping pong tables—is not, ultimately, anything spelled out by a script. Documentary-style, the film is content to follow the everyday lives of those people back home, who make their living with a herding stick on the endless, untouched plains of the steppe—a lifestyle presented alternately as idyllic, repetitive, and allowed to exist onscreen without much commentary at all.
The fascination here is in the details of its cast, richly layered and given plenty of screen time to unfold; but by the end of the film, if the audience has been seduced by the unexaggerated quirks of these characters, if they’re mesmerized by the long vistas and lingering shots of stretching earth and sky, there still isn’t much story here to remember. As Bilike arrives in the big city, the camera finds two fellows posing happily before another phony backdrop. Not the palaces of Beijing or the monuments of Europe this time, but the untamed streams and empty grasslands of Bilike’s home. It’s a moment of genuine contemplation that saves the film from condescension. It’s a reminder that what the filmmakers set out to do was not to make us see the mundane or exotic, but to see with a child’s wonder at the world.
Mongolian Ping Pong is now available on DVD.
By: Amanda Andrade
Published on: 2006-11-20