Mongolian Ping Pong

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Mongolian Ping Pong
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

On the remote, vast grasslands of the Mongolian, 10-year old Bilike (Hurichabilike) and his family live a nomadic life and have little contact with the civilized” world. One day, the youngster makes an amazing find when he discovers, floating in a creek, a small and mysterious white sphere. He and his best friends, Dawa (Dawa) and Erguotou (Geliban), set out to solve the mystery and find the source of their prize in “Mongolian Ping Pong.”

This charming little gem of a film starts off with a premise that holds much akin to the 1980 sleeper hit, The Gods Must Be Crazy.” In that low-budget little moneymaker, a diminutive bushman of the Kalahari Desert in Africa finds a mysterious object that changes the lives of all in his village – a Coke bottle. But, the bottle proves such a problem, causing disputes where there previously were none, that the finder decides to return it to the gods. The film follows his antic adventures across the veldt to fulfill his mission. The premise is very similar to that of “Mongolian Ping Pong” but it is with that premise that the similarity ends.

In “Mongolian Ping Pong,” Bilike finds his own mysterious object, the title ping-pong ball, and he and his buddies decide that the “glowing pearl” is a gift from the spirit of the river. They ask the adults in the tiny village, including the local cop, what their find really is but no one has a clue. They journey to a faraway monastery to seek the knowledge of the wise lamas and even they can’t give the boys an answer.

When the movies come to town, the boys see their first golf game and think that all they have is a lowly golf ball, not a glowing pearl. Dejected with the realization, Bilike tosses the ball in a rat hole. Then, Dawa’s father wins a TV set and, with a bit of electricity, the kids see their first ping-pong match and learn that their treasure is the “national ball of China.” “They must be worried about it!” one of them solemnly intones. Now, they have a new, even more important quest: return the nation’s ball to Beijing. Unfortunately, they don’t realize just how far the Chinese capital is from their tiny hamlet. More adventures ensue as they try to fulfill their quest.

Director Ning Hao, working from his script (co-written with Xing Aina and Gao Jianguo), creates a little work that turns out to be an epic adventure for its main characters. The youngsters are, no surprise, non-actors but each is so believable (and so well directed) that you lose yourself in their wonderful, innocent pursuit for answers. Couple this with the rest of the natural players in this passion play, the magnificent landscapes of the Mongolian steppes and the masterly cinematography by Du Jie and we get a very special film, indeed. It’s slice of the young boys’ life that never fails to delight as their culture clashes with the so-called civilized world. Their primitive world is so full of honest wonder for the boys – Ning Hao makes living without the plethora of comforts we are so used to feel appealing – the film has a “Local Hero” appeal.

Mongolian Ping Pong” will likely get only limited art house exposure and this will be a shame. This is the kind of movie that should be seen by many, rather than the few. It opens and closes with the unusual Mongolian throat singing – a compelling form of music, to say the least – but this is replaced, for the bulk of “Ping Pong,” with the sound of the winds across the steppe and the melodious lilt of the Mongol language. If you think that you’re a film buff then this is a must see movie. I give it an A-.

Bilike (Hurichabilike) lives an idyllic life with his family and their sheep and horses in the magnificent steppe grasslands of Mongolia.  The world comes to them via the occasional traveling entertainment, merchant or photographer's backdrop but when Bilike finds a ping pong ball floating down a stream one day, the mysterious glowing pearl is the first thing that makes him consider venturing out into that world in director Ning Hao's "Mongolian Ping Pong."

It is strange how familiar the nomadic Mongolian way of life may seem to adventurous filmgoers, from the Tuvan throat singing of "Genghis Blues" to the round tent homes and elaborate maneuverings for television reception of "The Story of the Weeping Camel."  And yet nothing will prepare you for the sheer beauty of this flat, verdant landscape whose horizon seems to stretch out into infinity.

Director Ning Hao begins his film by introducing us to Bilike's family as they gather and reconfigure for a series of photographs in front of a rippling backdrop of Tiananmen Square. Then the camera pans right to reveal the vast lands behind them.  The traditional and modern are constantly juxtaposed, the youngest family member toddling about in the padded costume of the region while Bilike's friend Dawa (Dawa) sports a Mets cap.  Grandmother (Dugema), a tiny woman with a triangular face mostly obscured by huge round eyeglasses, indulges her Jujube habit while working with her hand held spindle.

Once Bilike finds his ball, he and his buddies Dawa and Ergoutou (Geliban) are determined to discover just what treasure they have in their possession and so they travel to the holy lamas to seek their wisdom but the priests are as clueless as they.  When Bilike's father (Yidexinnaribu) coaxes a TV signal to flicker upon their tube, the boys find out that they hold the 'national ball of China' and believe its missing status must have the nation in a panic and that it is their duty to travel to Beijing to return it.

Cinematographer Jie Du captures the beautiful light at every stage of its ever changing qualities and the shape of a rainbow which arcs over the land imitating the curves of the streams which crawl across it.  The director favors natural sound after his opening music and closes with a simple, recognizable sound that will bring a smile.

Hao's film is full of the type of gentle comedy that delights us with the sight of a truck getting stuck after pulling another out of the mire.  If his story sounds like "The Gods Must Be Crazy," where African bushmen marveled over an empty Coke bottle, it bears no resemblance.  "Ping Pong" is more about celebrating what one can find in one's own backyard.

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