Yes, as the title suggests, Jessica Yu's latest film is about ping pong. No, it is not a documentary. Ping Pong Playa' marks the director's first foray into fiction, and as she says: "Consistency be damned." This isn't about disabilities, art, or violence. It's a simple comedy about growing up and getting serious. It's also a refreshing reversal from the usual comedic fare -- a lone Asian American beacon of laughs in a sea that usually has only spots of color.
Ping Pong Playa' is the story of Christopher "C-dub" Wang (like song, not sang). He's a plain ol' suburban American guy -- he loves eating cereal, playing video games, hanging out with his best friend, and playing basketball. The game is his big passion, and he swears that he would be in the NBA if not for his Chinese genes. Meanwhile, his family is absorbed in ping pong. His dad runs the family's ping pong store, his mom teaches it at the local Chinese Community Center, and his brother is a champion (and a doctor to boot).
C-dub is the typical slacker who'd rather sleep in than be helpful, but things change when his mom and brother are hurt in a car accident, rendering both unable to play. At first, Christopher doesn't take the job seriously, and ignores his utterly adorable, eager students, until one of the kids named Felix (Andrew Vo) shows him the monetary perks of ping pong playing. Topping that off, a few jerky white guys try to steal all the students, so Christopher finally has to step up to the plate and enter the upcoming National Golden Cock Tournament.
The film is as it sounds -- a light-hearted, family-friendly sports comedy. (Yu even headed off potential MPAA issues and added a special, but apt, noise to cover obscenities.) You won't see it battling the likes of superstar comedies such as Superbad, but that's okay because it holds a real, simple charm. You might not roll in the aisles, but you can't help but invest yourself in these characters. They grab you and take you with them -- no matter what your age or race. This is, in part, because of the amazing performance from Jimmy Tsai (who also co-wrote the film with Yu). Believe it or not, the guy has been working as an accountant for Cherry Sky, the film's backer. Clearly, his talents lie elsewhere. C-dub could easily come off as too lazy or annoying, but Tsai makes him sweet and likable.
The other shining part of this equation is the cast of kids. They were both comfortable on the screen as well as immediately lovable. What really floored me was how at ease they were, without having that too-mature-too-soon vibe of Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment. Vo particularly stood out, being the perfect, believable cohort to the immature C-dub. You'll also recognize Javin Reid, who plays Prabakar, the young Indian genius -- he played Mohinder's younger hero brother on Heroes.
If you go into Ping Pong Playa' expecting a light, predictable comedy, it would be hard to come out unsatisfied. It'll help more if you love irresistible kid cuteness. You know what's going to happen in this movie. That isn't the question. What matters is how it happens, and just how much every cast member makes you invested in that outcome. Each person in Jessica Yu's first fiction feature does just that, and together they make what I hope will be one in a long line of continued exposure of Asian Americans on the big screen.