A little bit of grassland goes a long way in “Mongolian Ping Pong,” a charming but overextended yarn about some prairie tykes who mistake a table-tennis ball for a glowing pearl from the gods. As in his previous feature, “Incense,” mainland Chinese director Ning Hao takes his time spinning small observations from everyday life, and though this outing is generally more digestible, it’s still basically a one-trick pony teased out to feature length, best suited to the small screen or kidfests.
Pic may more easily seduce auds for whom the vast Mongolian steppes and the people’s nomadic existence are something new. Those already familiar with the considerable number of films and docus set there are more likely to find this one just mildly diverting.
Story takes place somewhere in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, where one day young Bilgee (Hurzbileg) finds a ping-pong ball floating down a creek. He shows it to his pals, Ergotov (Geliban) and Dawaa (Dawaa), and they also have no idea what the thing is, though Bilgee’s aged grandma confirms it’s a magical pearl from heaven.
When the ball stubbornly refuses to glow, the kids start to get bored. After further attempts to identify the object, Bilgee finally buries it in a hole in the ground.
Helmer Ning decorates the first half of the tale with details showing the family’s separation from many of the norms of civilization (electricity, running water) and their blissful ignorance of the outside world. From the opening scene of Bilgee’s family posing in front of a photographic backdrop of Tiananmen Square, to the father (Yadamnarbuu) rigging a rickety aerial after he’s won a TV set, these scenes are handled with a gentle irony that just about escapes condescension.
When the kids learn about the game of ping-pong on the TV, and that the object they found is the “national ball of China,” a new set of misunderstandings propels the story in another direction. Thinking the ball is a “national treasure,” Bilgee and Dawaa set off on their own — without telling their families — to return it to Beijing, which they think is just over the horizon. But they discover the grasslands are vaster than they ever imagined.
It’s largely in this second half that the film starts to feel stretched, as the basic joke about the kids’ ignorance of the outside world is simply replayed in a different setting. Final stages, as Bilgee leaves the grasslands to attend school, puts a kind of dramatic frame around the tale, with the drone-like music of the opening also reprised.
Performances are fine within the limited scope of the script, with Yadamnarbuu especially good as the pragmatic father. More on some of the other characters, such as Bilgee’s sister (Urnaa), who wants to attend university, and a motorized delivery man (Jin Laowu), who fancies her, would have spread the dramatic balance more evenly across the pic. Tyke actors are all OK, avoiding cuteness.
Transfer from HD to 35mm looks good on the bigscreen, with only minimal fuzziness. Reflecting the pic’s Chinese title (“Green Grasslands”) rather than its more fanciful English one, lensing by Du Jie is suffused with the verdant colors of the region.