[For the next week and half, we will be covering DOC NYC 2012, New York City's premier documentary film festival. Check back with Flixist for reviews of the DOC NYC 2012 slate. You can read all of our DOC NYC coverage here.]
Competition documentaries are an amusing subgenre that tend to be about three things: 1) the personalities of the competitors, 2) the exploration of a given subculture, and 3) how the thing they're competing at is a MacGuffin; the sport/activity is really a way to practice a personal philosophy of life. You see that in films like Spellbound (maybe my favorite competition doc), Wild Horse, Wild Ride, or Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters.
In Ping Pong, it's the World Table Tennis Championships in Inner Mongolia. The competitors are all 80 years old or older. The oldest is Dorothy DeLowe, a 100-year-old Australian champion. We watch her play, and she's practically planted in one place and not nearly as mobile as her opponent. Lisa Modlich, 85, another fierce competitor, looks on to study Dorothy's playing style. Lisa is a fiery Austrian immigrant who now lives in Houston. She laughs but has the heart of a lion.
"I don't care how good she is, I should get her," Lisa says to the camera as Dorothy strains for a return. There's fierce judgment in her voice like anyone who wants to win. "She can't move."
Lisa then smiles, as if to say, "And I would destroy her."
While Dorothy is basically inert during her games, the rest of the field in Ping Pong is more dynamic. Lisa in particular is merciless and cheerily unapologetic about exploiting an opponent's weaknesses. She even talks smack. Mind games and insults: the head is another table. There are two German women competing as well: 89 year old Ursula Bihl, the defending singles champion, and newcomer Inge Hermann (89), entering her first ever competition. While Lisa's time on screen is bursting with flamboyance, both Ursula and Inge are quiet and solemn. Inge actually spends a lot of her interview time reflecting on death. Rune Forsberg, an 85-year-old men's champion from Sweden, is similarly meditative, but he seems less worried about death and more about losing.
Death is a sort of spectator in the film given the age of all the people in the movie. For some, death seems like a frightening and impending possibility. That's definitely the case with UK player Terry Donlon, 81. His health problems bookend the film. The first time we see Terry, he's bedridden and distraught. When we see him later in the film, he struggles with is breath. Ping pong gets him winded, and it's harrowing. Yet Terry's long-time friend, Les D'Arcy, is still athletic. He lifts weights, he's on his feet and mentally alert, and he looks great with his shirt off, especially for 90 years old. Sun Lao from China, 83, doesn't seem worried about death since he's got his essentials: ginseng, ping pong, and cigarettes.
There's a great charm in watching old people play table tennis. It sounds condescending, but I don't mean it to be. Director Hugh Hartford did a great job finding the kinds of personalities that are grounded and sympathetic, and he gives each of them a moment to shine. Each player gets an introduction even if they're knocked out of the tournament early. The film's a bit short at 78 minutes, but you still get a good amount of character observation and ping pong playing in its duration. Ping Pong doesn't waste much time, though I wish the film, like its subjects, was over 80.
Another part of the film's charm comes from the admiration I have for older people being active. Maybe it stems from some fond memories of my grandmother -- a tiny woman, a cigar smoker, looked like Grandma Sinclair from Dinosaurs, but she walked about a half-mile to a mile every day for recreation. Even though it was just on pavement, and sometimes just to buy lotto tickets in the nighborhood, she called it hiking. That's a model for the golden years, something to aspire to. Getting older, especially when you're past retirement, always seemed like an excuse for bodily collapse, couch potato-ing, and general disrepair. But most of these competitors in Ping Pong train every week, and if they don't train, they at least lead lives that aren't sedentary. Ursula, for instance, admits she doesn't really stay in the mode between events; Terry says he gets the workout he needs from the game.
I'm not a conniseur of ping pong, but I was fascinated by little variations in playing style and lingo (e.g., they call it a "bat" rather than a "paddle"). There's a ranking of national identity and ping pong supremacy, with China and other Asian nations at the top; the Germans and the Swedes are the next tier down. Asian players grip their bat with that penhold-style -- hands more up on the paddle portion than the handle -- while many European competitors do the handshake-style -- all handle, practically. It's a kind of swordplay, and each player's style is unique to who they are.
It's real credit to Hartford that he manages to make the ping pong surprisingly intense. Some of that is thanks to the score by Orlando Roberton & The Bees. The music incorporates the percussive back-and-forth of a table tennis game with a jittery shuffle of piano. It seems like it could be repetitive, but it actually accompanies the rhythm of the games quite well. Part of this intensity may also be due to the age of the competitors. It's odd that a certain lack of mobility or the erosive effects of age can create drama. What's human about it, though, are the occasional frustrated looks on the competitor's faces. Part of that expression says "Why can't my body take this anymore" and "I'm getting too old for this bollocks."
But even when their bodies give out, they've at least shown up. They intend to play. That's not a token gesture. It's inspiring, and there were a few times -- out of concern and even out of excitement -- where I leaned forward in my chair toward the screen. Ping pong can be hypnotic, and when combined with players who you're invested in, it becomes compelling. And like all competition documentaries, the effort isn't just about the matchpoint; it's almost like a fight for vindication, a declaration of life: I deserve to be here, I can still play, I can't not play -- I am still on this Earth, and I intend to stay here.
[Ping Pong will screen at the IFC Center on Friday, November 9th. Co-directors Hugh Hartford and Anson Hartford as well as documentary subjects Terry Donlon and Lisa Modlich are expected to attend the screening.]