It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic departure from Jessica Yu’s impressive (and Oscar-winning) docu work than “Ping Pong Playa,” a good, clean, fun comedy that uses a table tennis championship to crack inside jokes about Los Angeles’ Chinese-American community. Based on the trash-talking basketball player invented by Jimmy Tsai to sell his line of Venom sportswear, the pic follows Christopher “C-dub” Wang, an underemployed baller who aspires to the NBA but ends up defending the family’s Golden Cock Ping Pong title instead. Sports angle is strictly formulaic, but with careful aim, this pic could achieve overnight cult status among younger auds.
Like a watered-down East Hills Ali G, C-dub “talks like a black person” and over-corrects for his perceived genetic shortcomings, grousing about the shortage of athletic Chinese role models. (Don’t be surprised to see choice lines, including the character’s cocky “Orient Express” nickname, on T-shirts and bumper stickers for years to come.)
Cultural satire aside, C-dub makes for a rather thin character on which to base an otherwise by-the-numbers underdog comedy, especially considering that his natural Ping Pong prowess actually puts his opponents at a disadvantage.
The Wang family runs the neighborhood’s leading coaching facility, although it’s their oldest son, Michael (Roger Fan), a successful doctor, whose winning streak keeps the customers coming every year.
By contrast, C-dub is a slacker and all-around disappointment. He wastes his days shooting hoops with kids half his size and getting fired from menial jobs at the local mall. His parents clearly wish he’d be more like Michael, but C-dub resists, until a well-timed traffic accident puts both his brother and mother out of commission.
To keep the family business afloat, the wannabe-gangsta will have to take over his mother’s lessons and compete for the trophy himself.
From her “Sour Death Balls” debut, Yu’s work has always demonstrated a sensitivity and intelligence that shows through even here, although you have to look a little harder to find it in this “Saturday Night Live”-style comic portrait.
Tsai’s C-dub character, who developed a limited following in a series of Web spots, has only a handful of amusing traits, not enough to sustain an entire feature. Despite Tsai’s limited on-camera experience, his routine plays as if he’s been doing it standup for years.
Yu’s approach is unique in that it deconstructs common misconceptions about Chinese-American culture (the white characters quickly chalk up Michael’s accident to Asian driving, for example) while replacing them with gentler observations from within (such as Chinese parents taking credit for all the world’s key inventions, including Ping Pong). But the helmer’s not above relying on stereotypes for the story’s other characters, from fat kids to Indian brainiacs to swishy white guys (“Queer as Folk’s” Peter Paige plays C-dub’s key rival).
Olympic status notwithstanding, it’s hard to take table tennis seriously. Yu has fun watching C-dub squirm in his too-tight shorts or imagining the sport’s first-ever injury time-out, but the championship game itself goes on too long.
CG balls fill in seamlessly during trickier shots, and the sound of a bouncing basketball covers C-dub’s more colorful four-letter expressions — though additional bleeps may be required, particularly with regard to Chops’ irreverent hip-hop soundtrack, to earn a PG-13 rating.