Why do so many documentary filmmakers nurture a secret desire to make lowbrow comedies and genre pictures? Prior to co-writing and directing Ping Pong Playa, Jessica Yu had a reputation as one of the most daring documentarians around, thanks to features like the stylish, thoughtful In The Realms Of The Unreal and Protagonist, and shorts like the Academy Award-winning "Breathing Lessons." Now, in the grand tradition of Canadian Bacon and The Dark Wind, Yu has made a fiction feature that contains little to no traces of anything that made her doc work special. In fact, it's practically remedial.
Which doesn't mean Ping Ping Playa is bad, necessarily—or at least not as bad as Canadian Bacon or The Dark Wind. For the most part, it's an amiable underdog sports comedy, co-written by and starring Jimmy Tsai as an L.A. slacker who's forced by circumstance to take over his mother's table-tennis class and his brother's spot in an annual tournament. Because Tsai is essentially an overgrown kid himself—known to hang around the elementary-school basketball court, where he still dominates—he fits right in among his new students, a group of overachieving nerds whom he teaches to carry themselves with a certain hip-hop swagger.
Ping Pong Playa is more low-key and likeable than most oppressive Hollywood comedies—Balls Of Fury, for example—and it's nice to see the kind of Asian-American neighborhoods and characters that rarely make it to the big screen. But aside from the casting and the location shooting, there's not much to distinguish Ping Pong Playa from Ladybugs or The Mighty Ducks. It looks cheaper, and its script isn't as tightly constructed, but otherwise, it's thoroughly average. One odd choice that Yu and Tsai make is to blank out all the swear words—even the PG-13 ones—with the sound of a basketball or ping-pong ball bouncing, and that weird sound effect kind of encapsulates Ping Pong Playa. Something is missing here.