Eight senior citizens, each between the ages of 80 and 100, representing six countries, have one common goal: a gold medal at the International Over-80s Table Tennis Championships. In a nutshell, this is the eccentric medley of characters that up-and-coming filmmaker Hugh Hartford has assembled in his latest documentary Ping Pong. The film is as much a tribute to triumphant perseverance as it is a reflection on dealing with and overcoming the fact of mortality. On the surface, a senior citizen’s table tennis tournament would not seem to offer much of a spectacular subject for an 80-minute documentary, but Hartford’s film exposes the drama, training and heart(s) that drive this competition.
Ping Pong opens by thrusting us straight into the heat of battle: we’re shown the hundreds of spunky seniors who’ve gathered in China to “duke” it out for ping pong supremacy. But Hartford quickly draws us back several months, and begins to introduce us, one by one, to eight of these table tennis warriors, giving us insight into the very personal dreams at stake in this seemingly innocuous competition. Indeed, the better part of the 80-minute documentary is devoted to the stories that these eight individuals bring to the table: their ruminations on days gone by and on days yet to come. In this way, Ping Pong, like most documentaries that stick in memory, manages to transcend its seemingly superficial subject matter, revealing a deeper humanity beneath the surface of an event most of us wouldn’t normally think twice about.
The eight ping pong enthusiasts we get to know are as motley as the countries they represent – there’s the ardent Texan with an attitude, the German woman whose partial recovery from mental illness was achieved through a strict regime of table tennis, and a 100-year-old Australian lady (perhaps the most impressive of the bunch). However, most attention is given to two ping pong partners (and friends) from Britain: Les D’Arcy and Terry Donlon. These characters epitomize the ‘mind-over-matter’ maxim. As Les aptly states in interview: “If you think you’re beat, you are”. All of these eight men and women have their own personal motivations for entering this competition; the action unfolds as we watch them square-off against others (and occasionally one another) for potential ping pong prestige.
Despite the fact that this is only Hartford’s third time trying his hand at directing, Ping Pong is, for the most part, a very effective documentary. The quirky, upbeat soundtrack smoothes over the scene-transitions seamlessly, and the well-polished cinematography lends a dramatic tension to the already riveting sport that is table tennis. The story is told through a mix of on-site coverage of the action at the table tennis tournament itself, interviews with the competitors we’ve come to know, and footage of past tournaments and events. Such a collage of people, places and times can occasionally be a little disorienting, and the flow of the story encounters a little friction at times and might drag – but these moments are exceptions to an otherwise sleek and personal treatment of the stories surrounding these Championship contenders.
The more serious and personal matters in the film are handled with dignity. Mortality and how we deal with it is a theme which runs just below the surface throughout much of the documentary. If given in to, the fact of impending mortality can be cause for despair and resignation. However, as the spirit of these mettlesome elderly ping pong players show, these fears can be conquered. Overall, Ping Pong is a wonderfully made and skilfully balanced film: an honest and charming case study in the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.