Game Theories

Washington City Paper | July 21, 2006
In Hollywood movies, boyhood is a near-perpetual state, lasting well beyond puberty and depicted mostly for the amusement of other overgrown boys (and their indulgent girlfriends). Elsewhere, however, coming-of-age films are apparently still being made. British director Paul Morrison’s Wondrous Oblivion is earnest and didactic, which suits its setting: working-class London in the early ’60s. Chinese filmmaker Ning Hao’s Mongolian Ping Pong is technically a contemporary tale, but it transpires on the border of tradition and modernity—which turns out to be the ideal location for some gentle magic.

Because the latter movie is essentially a one-liner, it’s fitting that it opens with a visual joke. A Chinese-Mongolian family poses for tourist snapshots in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City: first Mom and Dad, then the whole clan—including a lamb—and finally just Grandma. By the time the old woman walks out of the frame, most viewers will have noticed that Beijing is just a one-dimensional backdrop. Then, as Grandma ambles in front of the scene’s far more impressive natural scenery, the big-sky country of Inner Mongolia, the crew rolls down the next photo-illustrated curtain: the Arc de Triomphe.

This sequence, like the movie that follows, is simple, sparing with the dialogue, and affectionately wry. Yet it introduces not only the central character and the sweeping landscape—as expressive as any of the film’s nonprofessional performers, and rendered in images of unglamorized beauty by cinematographer Du Jie—but also some recurring themes. Beijing represents several mysteries, including the modern world and national identity, so it’s a logical development when 7-year-old Bilike (Hurichabilike) and his two friends, Dawa (Dawa) and Erguotou (Geliban) decide that they must make a pilgrimage there.

The journey is set in motion when Bilike goes to fetch water from a meandering stream, only to see a mysterious white sphere float by. He retrieves it, and solicits opinions as to its identity. The boys use their tongues and eyes to determine that it’s not sweet and not an egg. Grandma (Dugema) explains that it’s a “glowing pearl” that belongs to the river gods who live upstream; based on this information, the boys treasure the one-of-a-kind orb. But doubts surface when a traveling film projectionist shows a movie that includes a scene with a golf ball. After the show, the boys ask “Uncle Film” if that’s what their discovery is. No, he says, it’s a pingpong ball. The kids don’t know what that means, but Uncle Film’s tone is so dismissive that Bilike throws the thing down a hole.

The boys and their families live in a world that has been infiltrated by technology but not conquered by it. While Bilike and Dawa ride horses, Erguotou gets around on a motorbike. Traveling hucksters bring in various “American” inventions—coffee, an electric razor—to trade for sheep, or simply to impress Bilike’s pretty older sister, Wurina (Wurina). Television has arrived in the small yurt settlement, but it doesn’t work very well. So the boys can hear but not see the broadcast of a table-tennis match during which the announcer refers to a pingpong ball as “the national ball.” Suddenly, Bilike’s find is important again and must be retrieved. That’s when the kids decide to take it to Beijing, in a trip across the Gobi Desert that, characteristically for this small-scale film, turns out to be less than epic. Eventually, Bilike finds enlightenment much closer at hand—in the nearest town. (Watch for the photo crew, now setting up a steppes background for its urban clientele.) The boy’s final discovery is so startling, however, that the director can’t even show it: The film opens with a visual gag but closes with an auditory one.

Art-house veterans with longish memories will recognize Mongolian Ping Pong’s premise as nearly identical to that of 1980’s The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which a Botswana Bushman is mystified by an empty Coke bottle. That film, however, took a slapstick approach that flirted with outright racism: Funny animals and clueless natives did silly stunts for the amusement of white bystanders. There’s no such condescension in this movie, whose script is credited to Ning, Xing Aina, and Gao Jianguo, but which displays the input of—and respect for—its cast. Mongolian Ping Pong may just be a series of small, genial jokes, but its naturalness is as big a marvel as its vast grasslands and cloudscapes.

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