Blu-ray Review: Ping Pong Playa (2007)

Bouncing Onto Blu-ray On 2/10/09

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While there's an awful lot of things to to like about director and co-writer Jessica Yu's earnest coming-of-age comedy Ping Pong Playa that's centered on C-Dub (played by her co-writer Jimmy Tsai)-- an Asian cereal eating, playground hustling, frequently fired, under-achieving slacker who worships at the altar of urban hip-hop-- unfortunately the character of C-Dub isn't one of them.

Ostensibly, Tsai's C-Dub is the type of character that's funny for brief spurts of time and one that I wasn't terribly surprised to learn that has already been a success in viral YouTube videos online to hawk the Venom Sportswear line of clothing.

And for his big screen close-up, instead of endearing us to C-Dub, Yu and Tsai's script ensure he grows consistently more annoying as the film goes on, which is a big disappointment as it's an otherwise smart, fresh, and genuinely cheery film from the Oscar winning short subject documentarian that offers a great take on culture clashes and stereotypes... most significantly for the Asian community.

Moreover, Yu's Playa is an unusual work of quality that the entire family can sit down and watch together given its PG-13 rating and interesting way she "bounces" out the swear words with the edited insert of a basketball bouncing every time he drops an F-bomb, despite their decision to leave the phrase "F-bomb" in the film as a character nickname.

However, by making C-Dub a caricature-- not an Asian one but a "wannabe playa" stereotypical hip-hopper, the film never manages to use its sharp insights on race, ethnicity, and double-standards for all involved as witnessed when Yu brings other other ethnic groups on board. Although despite the overly broad portrayal by the well-meaning Tsai as C-Dub-- I must grant that his character is initially hilarious when we first meet him in all of his Asian stereotype breaking glory, taking on middle school students in basketball in the park, threatening them with phrases like "go play piano," and "access denied," while wearing a t-shirt that reads "I Speak English," and making the young groupies go get him Gatorade.

But soon enough all of the original jokes like "we ain't building railroads for free anymore" and "you're my ninjas" begin to wear thin as he becomes increasingly more like a SNL sketch character who overstays his welcome in a film that-- much like the SNL comedies of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Chris Farley and others-- has him go through a similar underdog formula in trying to win a championship to help his family, after he unintentionally distracts his perfect over-achieving brother and mother with his foolish antics into a car crash which leaves them unable to participate in an important ping pong tournament.

Although, from the beginning, he argues that he plays "sports not games," in laughing off the idea of ping pong, upon realizing that his mom's dual sprained wrists has left her unable to teach local youths ping pong and sent both she and his brother out of commission in a tournament that would ensure both business for the mom's class and the father's ping pong supply shop, eventually the guilt at being what his brother calls the "yellow Fonzie" makes him relent and lend a hand.

About as responsible with children as Adam Sandler hurling dodgeballs at kids in Billy Madison, it's only a matter of time before he has kids betting on games and giving him their allowance money but he soon changes his tune when he's inspired by the group of quirky children to help save the family business from a few evil white dudes led by Peter Paige (one of a few non-Asian ethnic stereotypes that enter into the film including one about Indian young prodigies etc.).

Despite this the kids are adorable-- most notably the young Felix (Andrew Vo) who of course has a beautiful sister that C-Dub falls for and the Indian Prabakar (Javin Reid)-- and the supporting cast playing his family is terrific as they nail all the jokes about their ethnicity in a number of surprising scenes filled with fresh takes. But by offering a headache inducing lead performance and by not going anywhere original in terms of plot and by pigeonholing it in the-- as the film references-- Bad News Bears like paradigm, it's one where the potential was ultimately squandered.

Still, Ping Pong Playa is the type of film that already has a built-in fan-base of those who dug Tsai's character on the web along with reaching its core demographic with an appealing film that tries to go against all of the usual stereotypes about martial arts etc. And while in some circles, I expect it will be as big as Napoleon Dynamite and it does indeed get an "A" for effort in managing to serve up quality fare for the cinematically under-represented population-- next time around I think we can do much, much better than C-Dub in trying to turn Asian stereotypes around by leaving other stereotypes (like the "what up, playa" hip-hop caricature sure to annoy some African-American viewers) out of the mix.

Still, it's an innocuous and amusingly escapist work that's bright and filled with the type of rapid fire energy you'd need to try and challenge C-Dub to a ping pong game. And while you may want to adjust your television's color scheme as the Blu-ray from Image Entertainment and Cherry Sky Films which transferred the original Super 16mm footage to HD appears slightly grainy in the flesh tones and outlines, there's some entertaining bonus features in the widescreen disc including audio commentary from Yu and Tsai, two featurettes and more. While the DVD has been available for over a month, the hotly anticipated Blu-ray-- nominated for a 2008 Independent Spirit Award-- pings onto store shelves on February 10.