November 17, 2008

Ping Pong Playa Is an (Amusing) Ping Pong Loser

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It’s an age-old human tragedy to love something completely and be terrible at it. Most in that scenario concede ineptitude but overcome defeat, soldering on “for the love of the game.” Others are blissfully ignorant of their own shortcomings, the loser that thinks he or she is the supreme jock. When combined with a case of arrested development, a love interest and a camera, one can find himself in the same comedic water Will Ferrell has been lucratively treading for some time now.
Now for the twist. Ah, the race card. The playing-field equalizer. What if the loudmouthed, aloof Will Ferrell character didn’t have to face up to his eternal adolescence, because he could hide behind the his race? Enter Jimmy Tsai as Christopher “C-Dub” Wang (pronounced Waaaahng like “walk” and not Wang like “bang”).
So Yao Ming became the first globally renowned NBA baller of Chinese descent? So went C-Dub’s dreams. But not for a lack of trying. So C-Dub continues to dominate basketball … at the elementary school court, claiming a height handicap and talking tough. Street tough.
We’ve seen the hilarity of this scenario in Jamie Kennedy’s Malibu’s Most Wanted, a story of a youth who disavows ethno-racial stereotypes and adopts the ghetto mannerisms he relates to best. C-Dub is B-Rad’s Asian bird of a feather. Try to confront C-Dub, and he’ll attack you with accusations of assuming what Chinese and Chinese-Americans are, based on stereotypes. B-Rad couldn’t rap, but sure did try. And fail. Well, C-Dub can’t play basketball. Or do much else, though not for a lack of trying.
Unfortunately for C-Dub, his parents own a Ping Pong pro shop and teach lessons at the local Chinese community center. His older brother is an eligible bachelor, electronics expert, doctor and ping pong tournament master. The Golden Cock tournament to be exact (yikes). Winner gets to march in a parade with Miss Chinatown. Good grief. Talk about trying to overcome stereotypes. The tough part? If success is a stereotype, why overcome?
C-Dub’s brother, Michael (Roger Fan, Annapolis), has his own reasons for being what C-Dub sees as the acme of Asian-American stereotypes. If he wins the Cock, more people take lessons from Mrs. Wang and buy from Mr. Wang’s shop. “It’s simple marketing,” he assures his oh-so-gangsta sibling. C-Dub is content defying stereotypes, goofing off, working at the mall and planning a T-shirt company with his friend JP Money (Khary Payton). When Michael and Mrs. Wang get in an auto wreck (anti-prejudicial fodder for C-Dub), it’s up to C-Dub to jump in as replacement ping pong teacher and eventually competitor for the Golden Cock.
So C-Dub is put in the typical position of responsibility that movie plots require of people in a state of arrested development. Either the responsibility will mature him, or provide countless scenarios of hilarious-yet-by-the-numbers scenes of poor mentorship. One kid named Felix (Andrew Vo) idolizes him instantly for his basketball “prowess” (dunking on a grade-school rim), and C-Dub only keeps him around because his sister (Smith Cho) is a “honey.” Will there be a love interest? Do we have to ask?
When the white professionals that Mrs. Wang lets practice in her gym grow weary of watching C-Dub flounder teaching opportunities and try to run a competing ping pong instruction service, how does C-Dub resolve? By challenging to the Golden Cock?
The plot is unimportant, because the awkward aloofness of C-Dub in a world that doesn’t know what to make of him and is afraid to approach him is a refreshing enough situation. What’s fascinating are the questions the movie raises about ethnic identity and stereotyping. Is identity fully constructed or a result of heritage and context? Is C-Dub a wannabe or just being who he wants to be? Various confrontations with friends, enemies and love interests bring up those questions and then explore and develop possible answers.
Writer/director Jessica Yu keeps things fresh and funny, perhaps a little too harsh on occasion, but what can we expect? It’s by IFC Films. Indie snarkiness is to be expected. The performances are solid, especially Tsai’s, and so are those of the kids he interacts with. Shelley Malil from The 40-Year Old Virgin shows up as a father of a prodigy that results in a hilarious subplot, and his scenes, as well as Javin Reid’s, who plays his son, are some of the film’s best.
How will C-Dub’s saga conclude? Will it aspire to the emotional heights of Rocky, a bittersweet sports movie ending that teaches us what’s really important, or will it leave viewers beating their foreheads against walls, like the ending of Rocket Science, a movie much closer in tone, if not form and content? Hmmm … somewhere between Rocky and Rocket Science … or maybe the Will Ferrell route, where the hero grows up after all, wins the game and the girl, and … nah, does it even matter?