Mongolian Ping Pong Review
Ning Hao is a young Chinese director you are going to hear a lot more of in the future. Graduating from film school in 2003, he has to date already made four films, showing tremendous versatility and ability and in the process gaining a considerable reputation. Mongolian Ping Pong is his third film and was an official selection at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival. Despite the apparent simplicity of the concept and script, it’s a film that is full of wit, charm and intelligence.
On the steppes of Inner Mongolia, one of the remotest regions of China, a young boy called Bilike discovers a ping pong ball floating down a stream. It’s an object that neither he nor his friends or parents have ever seen before and they speculate about its origin and purpose – is it an egg, a sweet or something else? His grandmother believes that it could be the treasure of a river spirit, a glowing pearl. Whatever it is, it marks Bilike out from the other young boys in the region, who are suspicious and envious of what he has. Eventually, Bilike discovers that what he has is something that is very important in China, where ping-pong is the national sport. Believing that he has the “national ball”, he sets out to return the precious object to Beijing.
Evidently, there is a lot of symbolism and allegory attached to such a simple storyline, but the success of Ning Hao’s treatment here is that he manages to make the film work on a surface level, through the charm of the young non-professional actors and the complete lack of any contrived drama, as well as allowing the film to work on any number of other levels. On a political level, the incongruous element of a ping pong ball can represent the growing influence of western values being into introduced into a society that has no need of them and doesn’t know what to do with them. Bilike’s father in particular is attracted by the fascinating objects brought to them by a travelling salesman, increasingly trading his precious livestock in exchange for worthless items like a coffee maker, a television (with no reception) and fashion magazines. But that is only one of many ways you can look at the film, and such a simple reading on its own doesn’t do justice to the riches found elsewhere in a film that has sociological, ethnological, psychological and anthropological elements.
That might make the film sound rather intimidating and pretentious, but nothing could be further from the truth. None of these elements is forced out of the story, but rather is allowed to arise naturally out of the simple events that take place. The ping pong ball acts then as a MacGuffin, an object that is nothing more than a catalyst to show the lives of the people who come into contact with it, their values, their dreams and ambitions, which are really no different from those of everyone else in the world. In the case of Bilike, the growing awareness of a young Mongolian boy that there is the world out there is larger than he could have imagined and that there is a whole wealth of ping pong balls out there, is perhaps by extension an awareness of the outside world that the formerly isolated community of China is going to have to get used to in the near future.
Mongolian Ping Pong is released in the US by First Run. The disc is in NTSC format and is not region coded.
The video transfer of the film is very difficult to rate, because on the surface it looks stunning - a seemingly direct digital transfer of a Digital Video source – yet it falls down on some very basic requirements, namely, the transfer is non-anamorphic, and it has fixed, burnt-in subtitles. The original 1.75:1 aspect ratio is however preserved and there are almost no flaws at all on the digital transfer, which shows remarkable detail, strong contrast, perfect colour balance and not a single mark on a very stable transfer. There is however some compression artefacts visible occasionally, a one or two scene transitions trigger a little bit of minor pixilation. None of these problems greatly detract from the tone of the film however, but some of them are minimum requirements that you would expect any new DVD to have.
The same applies to the audio track, which is Dolby Digital 2.0, demonstrating excellent clarity and tone, with an appropriate use of stereo separation, but is unfortunately quite clearly a beat or two out of sync throughout. Again, it’s not a problem that is terribly evident except in a few scenes where something is being banged, but it’s a simple, basic issue that you would expect to be picked up and corrected before the DVD is issued.
English subtitles are provided, in a clear white font. They are however fixed on the print and remain entirely within the image frame.
There are few extra features on this release, just a one screen text page of a Director’s Introduction, where he sums up his feelings for the Mongolian people and the theme of life as being full of questions and confusions. A similarly brief one screen text page provides a Director’s Biography. The Photo Gallery contains nine images taken directly from the film. A Trailer Gallery promotes a few other titles in First Run’s catalogue.
Mongolian Ping Pong is a lovely little film, one that, like the recent and similarly themed Cave Of The Yellow Dog benefits from the spectacular scenery of Mongolia and the unaffected, charming performances of its young non-professional cast. Ning Hao’s film however avoids any artificial dramatisation in its modest and unpretentious storyline that is at once simple, yet filled with meaning and truth. The director’s follow-up film Crazy Stone - a high-powered action heist movie doesn’t perhaps live up to the potential shown here, but it was hugely successful in China, both films nonetheless showing a young director with a lot of ability. There are some basic flaws with First Run's presentation of Mongolian Ping Pong, but its essential beauty and charm win through.