The road to the Olympics is paved with Ping-Pong balls for three teen hopefuls in “Top Spin,” Mina T. Son and Sara Newens’ quick-moving, kinetically edited sports documentary. At this level of play, speed and coordination prove paramount — qualities that are reflected in co-helmer/editor Newens’ choice of scenes, which concisely capture aspects of her subjects’ personalities and training at progressive stages in the countdown to the Olympic trials. The film doesn’t so much avoid cliches as brush off any sentimental excess, briskly maintaining narrative flow. Given the pic’s agreeable chronicling of high-level excellence in an under-documented sport, cable could give “Top Spin” a whirl.
Son and Newens focus on three young Ping-Pongers — California girls Ariel Hsing, 16, and Lily Zhang, 15, respectively Nos. 1 and 2 in the national rankings, and Long Islander Michael Landers, 17, who at 15 became the youngest-ever American male champion. Their brand of table tennis bears little resemblance to the family rec-room variety: Play attains such a fast and furious pitch that viewers might be tempted to check out non-combatants in the background to verify that the action isn’t artificially sped up.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that athletes must undergo hours of daily intensive physical training to navigate the table with the requisite agility. Hsing’s father commits himself fully and professionally to be her coach, while Zhang relies on non-family trainers. The girls are both friends and rivals, though Hsing consistently triumphs in their head-to-heads. Neither visibly experiences any difficulties in reconciling their extended tournament-related absences and marathon practice hours with keeping up at school or maintaining ties with classmates, most of whom have little concept of the girls’ double lives. Hsing’s transition from high school to college transpires without a hitch.
For Landers, however, choices involve more stress. He takes time off before college, traveling first to China, where the isolation from friends and family and the exhaustive nature of the training regimen take their toll, then to New York, where he enjoys celebrity status at the Ping-Pong game room/bar Spin. Since, to quote an American-Asian colleague, he is “young, Caucasian and good,” this fame soon expands to include magazine spreads, TV appearances and his photo appearing on a Kellogg’s Cornflakes box. His parents are leery of his decision to postpone college but careful to stress that they feel it necessary that he pursue his dream — even though making the U.S. Olympic team would be highly unlikely to result in a medal (the US ranks 45th) or translate into a career.
Meanwhile, neither Hsing’s nor Zhang’s Chinese-born parents harbor any such reservations about their daughters’ wholehearted immersion in the sport. The girls’ sportsmanship attracts the notice of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, seen clowning around with giant paddles to compete with them, but such illustrious contacts bear no hint of serious networking.
The filmmakers contrast the American players’ marginality with the game’s omnipresence and prestige in China, where, as location photography reveals, parks and public spaces virtually teem with rectangular tables in wood, stone and marble — more than explaining the country’s hegemony in the sport.
The U.S. trials, followed by the North American trials, increasingly structure the film — but not all the featured kids make it to the Olympics. Son and Newens build suspense not from point to point within individual games, but by opposing different styles of play (Hsing and Zhang, with their fast-paced volleys, vs. the “choppers,” who systematically “chop” away at opponents’ rhythms). Highlighting virtuoso bursts of energy and edge-clipping shots that cinch a game, “Top Spin” goes a long way toward building a mystique around the little table at the center of all those blink-of-an-eye flurries.