Happy Ping Pong, Happy Life
Anson and Hugh Hartford’s documentary Ping Pong is simultaneously frustrating and moving—moving, because this glimpse into the lives of octogenarian athletes tugs the hearts of those of us who are so much younger, and frustrating, because of the relentlessly Western focus on an event that is so evidently international in scope. For many, the moving elements will far outweigh the frustration by a good bit, but for a sport so popular around the world, this limited geographical focus—there is just one non-Western player profiled, and briefly at that—is difficult to overlook.
The documentary follows a handful of ping pong champions and aspiring champs from Europe, Australia, and the USA, all of whom are competing at the international over-80s tournament in China. In its general outlines, the doc follows the template set out by any number of other competition films—think War Dance or First Position. This kind of structure is seductive: by spending time with a handful of contestants, the viewer inevitably becomes invested in their struggles, and hopes for their success.
It helps, of course, if the contestants under review are colorful and compelling, and in this regard the film succeeds with no difficulty. Les D’Arcy (89) lifts weights that would be a struggle for many younger men to handle, while his doubles teammate Terry Donlon battles cancer in between, and sometimes during, tournaments. Sweden’s Rune Forsberg, the three-time World silver medalist, is a soft-spoken gentleman who dreams of earning his first single’s gold.
Meanwhile, transplanted Austrian Lisa Modlich, now living in Houston, Texas, describes her style of playing as “as irregular as my driving”. She is full of pithy comments like, “It’s not how hard you play, it’‘s where you put it.” She has never won a World Champion gold either, and her ambition to do so fairly drips from the screen.
Germany’s Ursula Bihl is the current World Champion, and the plucky 89-year-old shows little sign of letting up. Notwithstanding her apparent frailty—she gets winded by a flight of stairs—Bihl is the favorite to defend her title. Other players make their appearance too, such as Germany’s Inge Hermann, who has never competed in the championships before, and Mongolia’s Sun Yong Qing, a regional champion who pops ginseng berries and other natural supplements along with his rice wine and cigarettes. Perhaps most astonishing is Australia’s 100-year-old Dorothy DeLow, who has competed in the World Championships 11 times.
It’s impossible to spend so much time with the elderly, even fit and active elderly such as these, without thinking of mortality and loss. Death hovers at the edges of this documentary and the detritus of old age—walkers and wheelchairs, nursing homes and dementia—is impossible to ignore. Terry Donlon’s cancer is inescapable, and Les D’Arcy speaks directly about valuing one’s time more “as you get nearer the winning post”. Such moments lend a palpable wistfulness to the proceedings.
Everybody is acutely aware that at this stage in life, there is relatively little time left. Although some moments feel celebratory, there is also a sense of near-desperation, of grasping at competition as a way to stave off mortality. This makes for uncomfortable viewing at times. Many of these players are survivors of deceased spouses and children, and have used competitive ping pong as a way to lend direction and purpose to lives which would otherwise lack them.
As the film progresses, the various players arrive at and participate in the World Championship event. This central portion of the film feels rather rote at first, as lengthy montages follow the principals through a series of qualifying rounds to the accompaniment of a sprightly score meant to let us know that this is all in good fun. Later rounds do manage to ramp up the intensity, and the tension, which is no easy feat with a game that lacks much in terms of obvious visual flair.
What’s more interesting is the way the principal characters come together and collide in their matches, when the quirks of personality become more apparent. It must be said: Viennese-American Modlich comes off especially poorly in this regard, making sniping comments about her opposition that leave her an unsympathetic character, even a distasteful one. It’s tough to root against an old lady trying to win a ping pong match, but hey, I did it.
Bonus features consist primarily of deleted scenes, which total about 15 minutes but add only marginally to the viewing experience. Ultimately, this documentary works in two ways: by offering both a linear story of competition and triumph, and offering a meditative reflection on the process of aging. These are two themes which rarely figure in the same narrative, and their presence here makes for some powerful moments. As this film makes clear, these competitors are deserving of all the respect we can offer them.