By this point, we’ve seen so many movies about the underdog, the Big Game and the rescue of the family honor, that it’s almost impossible to tell that kind of story with a straight face. Which is what makes “Ping Pong Playa” such a surprising treat — this low-budget comedy keeps its tongue in cheek while simultaneously making us actually care about who wins the tournament.
With the sport being table tennis, of course, the tournament isn’t exactly the last five minutes of “Rocky.” But when the characters are this charming and the dialogue is this smart, you won’t mind watching a little white ball clonk its way from paddle to tabletop and back again.
Christopher Wang (Jimmy Tsai), or “C-Dub” to his friends, is a loudmouth slacker who speaks almost entirely in a b-ball patois and laments the genetic failings that have kept him from being an NBA star. His laziness alone would make him a disappointment in his parents’ Asian-American community — their friends all brag about their kids being doctors and lawyers — but C-Dub has also turned his back on his family’s legacy of ping pong domination.
C-dub’s older brother Michael (Roger Fan) has won the annual ping pong tournament for years, which has in turn benefited the table-tennis-supplies store that the Wangs manage. But when Mrs. Wang (Elizabeth Sung) and Michael get into a car accident, C-dub must take over his mother’s ping pong class at the community center and, ultimately, play for the family in the tournament.
This year, winning the National Golden Cock Tournament means more than a date with Miss Chinatown — C-dub has to defend the sport from Gerald (Peter Paige), a snotty interloper who wants to open up his own Anglo-centric table tennis academy.
You may be able to guess the ultimate destination of “Ping Pong Playa,” but the film chooses an interestingly circuitous route in getting there. From C-dub’s embrace of his athletic destiny to his relationship with the kids in his mom’s class — not to mention his flirtation with Jennifer (Smith Cho), the older sister of one of his students — the film finds a way to tell its story and embellish its characters while poking gentle fun at Asian overachievers and white people’s obliviousness about Asian culture.
Documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu (“In the Realms of the Unreal,” “Breathing Lessons”) makes an assured narrative debut here, even though it’s clear she’s working from a limited budget. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Yu for years from when her films screened at the USA Film Festival in Dallas, where I was once artistic director.) “Ping Pong Playa” has a sweet shagginess to it that matches C-dub’s lackadaisical nature. The idea of using basketball sound effects to cover up profanities is an awkward choice — it would work better for the film’s eventual ABC Family debut than for a theatrical movie — but beyond that, the script (by Tsai and Yu) keep the laughs consistently in play.
“Ping Pong Playa” doesn’t have the angry edge of other groundbreaking comedies about race, but perhaps its amiability makes it even more subversive. Whether or not Asian-Americans embrace its unique sense of humor, table tennis fans will no doubt be elated to be able to cleanse “Balls of Fury” from their collective palates.