Though we understand the dual nature of children, we don’t think of old age as a time for growth. Ping Pong shows us people piquantly aware of the deterioration of their bodies and that they don’t have much time left. It becomes clear, as they train for the fiercest competitions in table tennis, that they are hardly defined by their limits. The youngest player featured is 80, the oldest 100, and both are world champions. Director Hugh Hartford skillfully documents each person’s past and present. These folks, once young and beautiful, got married in the time of Hitler; they’ve raised children now of retirement age themselves. Some are sweet, some reserved; some are mean, and some gregarious. The game they play is not the one in their grandchildren’s basements, but rather at the grandest gymnasia of world competition. They thwack not just at the ball, but also at the medical severities that brush up against their bones and brains. One athlete opens the documentary wiping tears, in pain in his hospital bed in England a few months after winning gold in China. We see him struggle against a collapsed lung and the toll of tenacious cancers as he plays through his matches. By film’s close, the prognosis is grim. The end will come, but he fights for victory and joy.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 23, 2013