Mongolian Ping Pong (Lu Cao Di) is a sweet-natured movie with almost no narrative strength or rhythm. One critic said that it was such slow going that it might have little appeal to Western audiences. I'm willing to speculate that it might also have little appeal to most Eastern audiences. There is much to like about the movie, but those things are cast in a structure that is so placid that it is difficult to stay interested. This isn't an audience weakness among those who prefer more movement; it is a basic structural weakness the director has given to his story.
And the story? A seven-year-old Chinese Mongolian boy, Bilike, who lives with his family and friends in small yurts away from the cities tending their sheep, one day makes a wondrous discovery. Floating in a stream is a small white ball. He's never seen anything like it. He thinks at first it might be a strange bird's egg. His aged grandmother tells him it is a magic pearl. We know it is a ping-pong ball. How it got to this place of vast grasslands we never learn. Then over the static of the family's television, Bilike learns that ping-pong is the national sport and the ping-pong ball is the national ball. He has no real idea of what ping-pong is, but now is convinced that he and his two friends must bring the national ball to Beijing. They set out on two horses and a moped. The result is a couple of strong spankings, a friendship which is sorely tested, a Solomon-like decision by two fathers on the fate of the ball...and then it's time for Bilike to go away to school in a distant city.
All the actors appear to be non-professionals (although Bilike's mother is played by Badema, the woman who played the young Mongolian wife in Close to Eden almost 20 years ago). We don't see much of them except for the three boys, but they bring an unaffected naturalness to their roles. The boys all are matter-of-fact and serious in their endeavors. The photography is fine with great vistas of grassland sweeping on to the horizon. The life of Bilike's family is interesting...making leather from sheep skins, sipping tea - and that American tea called coffee - inside the yurt in the evening, improvising an antenna for TV reception, visits by a health worker for inoculations, the look of the yurts, warm and colorful with rugs on the floor and hangings on the sides.
But there is only the sketchiest of narrative storyline. The movie is half over before the boys learn about the national ball and set out to cross the Gobi desert to Beijing. We witness incidents and relationships which all have a kind of directorial passiveness. Ning Hao, the director, isn't afraid to keep his camera going for a moment or two longer than many directors would. This isn't a bad thing, except he uses this device as a continuing technique. After awhile it has the effect of deadening us to the anticipation that there might be something we should be observing.
Still, there is the matter of the ending. (Some might consider what follows a spoiler.) The title for this final chapter is "New Ground Upon Which Knowledge Grows." Bilike is at his school watching an outdoor performance of other students. He excuses himself to go to the bathroom. On the way he stops and listens outside a large, yellow-brick building. We can faintly hear popping sounds. Bilike enters, listens at a closed door and then opens the door. We can clearly hear odd, rhythmic popping as the camera stays focused on Bilike's seven-year-old face. He observes what we can't see. No, he has not found the place at school where little boys are turned into ping-pong balls. It's a sweet end to Bilike's story, and it might lead to who knows what for Bilike. Still, like the movie, it is so under-played you might miss the enticing significance.
I enjoyed the movie the same way I enjoy most films that show a way and a rhythm of life that's different from our own. Mongolian Ping Pong, however, is placid to a fault. Others I enjoyed more are such films as Himalaya, The Way Home, The Fast Runner, The Story of the Weeping Camel and Close to Eden. None of them are perfect, but each in its own way tells a more composed story.