Top Spin

Eye on the prize.

Eye on the prize.

(2014) Sports Documentary (First Run) Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, Michael Landers, Michael Hsing, Joan Landers, Massimo Constantino, Brenda Young, Jonathan Bricklin, Stefan Feth, Barney Reed, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Michael Croitoros, Sean O’Neill, Jun Gao, Dory Gheorge, Stan Landers, Xinhua Jiang, Linda Liu, Erica Wu. Directed by Sara Newens and Mina T. Son

Florida Film Festival 2015

Back in the day, my family used to have a ping pong table in our Southern California backyard, a table my father, who tended towards formality in such things, insisted on calling “table tennis.” He taught me how to play and after a bit of a learning curve, I got to be okay at it. In fact, I remember enjoying the fast-paced play although when we moved from that home the table did not move with us and I stopped playing.

I cannot even fathom the dedication and perseverance displayed by three young American Olympic hopefuls – Ariel Hsing (a national champion), her friend and rival Lily Zhang and young Michael Landers. All three are making their bids to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics and are training like fiends, in addition to completing their schoolwork and getting ready for college.

Most of us probably don’t have much regard for table tennis but it is an Olympic sport for a reason. The ball moves nearly as fast as the eye can see; the players have lightning quick reactions and must have nimble footwork, agility and arm strength to return volleys at sufficient speed to compete at the highest levels.

It is also a sport that America doesn’t dominate; in fact, we are ranked only 45th in the world. As you can guess, the Chinese tend to produce the best players. Landers in fact skipped his last semester of high school (taking correspondence courses online in order to graduate) so that he can train in China where he discovers he is nowhere near the level that the focused and disciplined Chinese athletes are, although he tries gamely.

It turns out that the kids are more or less no different than any kid their age, although Hsing pretty is one of those blessed individuals who seems to succeed at everything she does and makes it look effortless, although judging from how hard her father trains her that it is anything but. Her father Michael is ambitious and relentless; there might well be a little stage father in him but not only is she genuinely gifted but she is as ambitious and relentless as he; any dad worth his salt will move heaven and earth to give his little princess whatever she dreams and that’s what he’s doing and successfully I might add.

It might be said that the Hsing family fits the Asian-American stereotype as being driven for success and focused on it to the exclusion of all else, and maybe they do. However the Zhang family is a bit more laidback about it, although Lily is just as primed to make the Olympic team as her friend and rival is. While Ariel wins most of their head-to-head matches, the two are both high on the national rankings and their rivalry is both fierce and friendly. Watching them play each other is to see sports at its finest.

The qualifying process for the American Olympic team is a little bit unusual compared to other more familiar sports. The top finishers at the US Championships are sent to the North American Championships for a round robin tournament with the Canadian champions; the winners of the various divisions qualify in total; no Americans may qualify or only Americans might qualify. It all depends on how they do in the tournament. Waiting for them is the Canadian champion, Jun Gao who might be the best player not living in China.

I have to admit I wasn’t especially jazzed to see a documentary on young people playing ping pong when I originally heard the movie was playing at the Florida Film Festival but Da Queen was so I made sure we attended the sole screening at the Festival. I can’t say that the stories of these extraordinary kids really moved me to any extent; we’ve seen these kinds of documentaries before, either on ESPN or in theaters. Extraordinary kids pursuing a dream, be it in the arts, sports or in some other endeavor. While the directors give us a sense of the dedication of these three teens and in some cases of the isolation and loneliness that they endure, we don’t get a real sense of the pressures and social conflicts that come with pursuing that dream. I would have liked a little more in-depth examination of how the kids themselves felt at living an abnormal lifestyle compared to what their friends are doing.

The filmmakers take ping pong VERY seriously and you probably will too after seeing this. I will admit that I was not enthused about this film the way some of those in my circle of film buffs were; I was impressed with how the physics of the game were examined and displayed in super slow motion camera work which gives you a more graphic idea of the athleticism that is required to excel in competition table tennis, but quite frankly while I was rooting for the kids to succeed, it felt like I’d been through it all before.

I may have been a little too hard on this movie. I’m well-aware that those who saw it at the FFF came away impressed, more so than I. Maybe I was just in Festival exhaustion mode. In any case, while my interest wasn’t necessarily held, I suspect that most people will feel the opposite once they see it. It’s hard not to admire the filmmakers passion for the sport and the players; while their stories may not especially seem much different than other sports and other players, it is sufficiently inspiring that even non-players of the sport and non-buffs of film may find their interest piqued.

REASONS TO GO: Clear love for the game of ping-pong. Physics are breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very different from other prodigy docs. Not enough detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Newens and Son have received M.F.A. degrees in Documentary Filmmaking from Stanford University.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Poltergeist (2015)

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