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Ping Pong Playa

(2008) ** Pg-13
96 min. IFC Films. Director: Jessica Yu. Cast: Jimmy Tsai, Javin Reid, Shelley Malil, Roger Fan, Romeo Brown.

/content/films/3331/14.jpgThere's no doubt about it: Asians have gotten the short end of the cinematic stick in America, especially in films about modern Asian-Americans. And so when a picture like Ping Pong Playa comes along, one is tempted to give it a pass simply for what it means to the social fabric, rather than for its narrative merits or lack thereof. One way to break down cultural walls is assimilation, and that's where Ping Pong Playa has its dubious triumph: it's just about as generic as the next "loser makes good by coaching kids" comedy, except with Asian leads taking their turns.

The novelty of Ping Pong Playa comes from its director and star, who co-wrote the film. Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu is known for her wonderfully strange documentaries, like In the Realms of the Unreal. Despite her TV work, no one could have predicted this career choice, which is probably exactly why she chose it. Star Jimmy Tsai, on the other hand, is essentially a first-time actor, having recently invented the character of Christopher "C-dub" Wang for a series of grass-rootsy advertisements for Venom Sportswear. A "Chinese brother" who defines himself through the hip-hop and basketball cultures, C-dub is drifting by on his parents' goodwill and trash-talking bluster. Presumably to mask deeply buried pangs of inadequacy, C-dub cultivates the hero worship of neighborhood kids, especially a fourth-grader named Felix (Andrew Vo).

Circumstances conspire to roust C-dub from his slacker slumber of video games, comic books, and excuses for his failure: when his mother (Elizabeth Sung) and ping-pong-champion brother (Roger Fan of Better Luck Tomorrow) are both sidelined by injury, it falls to C-dub to teach the ping-pong class down at the local rec center. C-dub protests, "I don't want to be coaching no 'Bad News Bears'!", but he soon learns he can hustle games and pick up a little extra scratch from his young charges. Under the scrutiny of Felix's attractive older sister, C-dub changes his ways and even decides to compete in the annual Golden Cock Championship ping-pong tournament. As Mr. Wang puts it, "Ping pong is life. We have to plan for the long haul."

Ping Pong Playa is good-natured to be sure, despite the swear words humorously "bleeped" with basketball bounces and ping-pong paddling (the rating is a family-friendy-ish PG-13). But the broad performance style, hackneyed plot and sterotypical characters (a nerdy Indian kid and racist, jerky whites, including a villainous ping-pong rival) can be wearyingly familiar. Yu's moderately amusing comedy is at its best when giving Tsai's entertainingly abrasive character a voice for stand-up-style cultural critique and stereotype deconstruction: a knock on "B.S. Chang's," a discussion of "statistical anomaly" Yao Ming, and the depiction of "yellow Fonzie" C-dub and mallrat buddy JP Money (Khary Payton) living for Cinnabon at the East Hills Mall.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 1/6/2009

Distributor: Image Entertainment

Image's special edition Blu-ray of Ping Pong Playa delivers exactly what one would want in terms of bonus features, beginning with a commentary with director/writer Jessica Yu and writer/co-producer/actor Jimmy Tsai explaining from whence the "C-dub" character came, and how the film itself came to be.

"PPP: Post-Game" (9:11, SD) is a montage of outtakes and bloopers, behind-the-scenes footage and general goofing around.

"PPP: Warm-Up Drills" (5:09, SD) is a collection of Tsai's Venom Sportswear ads, the ones that introduced "C-dub" and inspired the movie.

There's also the film's "Trailer" (1:54, SD) and Cast and Crew Bios.

As for the hi-def transfer, it's likely the best you'll ever see of Ping Pong Playa, but that may not be saying much. Given the limitations of the cheaply produced source, this isn't the picture or soundtrack to show off your system, but they get the job done, ably reproducing the theatrical experience (and yes, I saw this film in a theater). Sound is a perhaps overqualified DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, so you know you're getting every nuance of this comedy.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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