Film Review: Mongolian Ping Pong

by Celeste Heiter, Jul 11, 2010 | Destinations: China / Mongolia
Mongolian Ping Pong

Mongolian Ping Pong

Mongolian Ping Pong

One day is the same as the next in this yurt village on the steppes of Inner Mongolia, that is until the day a ping pong ball comes floating downstream and finds its way into the hands of Bilike, a boy on the verge of adolescence. Suddenly life is abuzz with mystery and speculation as Bilike and his friends Dawa and Ergoutan seek to discover the nature and purpose of this strange treasure.

Bilike's parents think it's a child's toy, but his wizened grandmother is certain that it was sent by the spirits to bring good fortune. In the days that follow, the boys share custody of the ball, querying the village elders about its origin and defending it against bullies. Dawa refers to it as a "glowing pearl," wearing reverently wears it around his neck in a macramé net.

The mystery continues for weeks until an itinerant movie projectionist arrives in the village and finally gives the ball a name. "It's a ping pong ball," he says, and soon after, the boys happen upon a ping pong tournament while channel surfing on their makeshift television. The tournament commentator mentions that ping pong is the national sport, and the ping pong ball is the "national ball."

Armed with that tidbit of information, the boys decide that they must travel to Tiannamen Square to return the treasure to the Chinese government. Little do they realize the magnitude of such a trek across the Gobi Desert, and when their plans fail, they are relegated once again to humdrum lives spent squabbling over a ping pong ball. But at what price?

Written and directed by Ning Hao, Mongolian Ping Pong is a vignette of the vanishing nomadic lifestyle of the people of Inner Mongolia. Pacing is as timeless as a pleasant dream amid the endless green of the Mongolian landscape. The characters in this wry film do their naive best to assimilate bits and pieces of the 21st century into their ancient culture, sometimes with comedic effect. And within that context, Hao Ning has deftly coaxed a cast of absolute beginners to deliver endearingly unaffected performances. A charmer from start to finish.