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You’re never too old for Ping Pong

Amidst a moving and funny portrait of a group of ping pong-playing colourful elderly people you will find an absolute cracking sports movie, rife with tension, drama and action, writes Paul Martinovic on the documentary baring the almost comically sounding simple name Ping Pong.

Ping Pong starts unpromisingly – when we’re first introduced to a collection of colourful old duffers who have spent their twilight years getting really, weirdly good at table tennis, the film feels like it will go either of two ways, neither of them particularly interesting. Firstly, it will either be a wacky, quirky comedy doc in the vein of The King of Kong, only this time with unsuspecting subjects who don’t deserve their inevitably cynical portrayal; or secondly, it’ll end up as a worthy, overtly feel-good story of the triumph of the human spirit, as we watch these oddball octogenarians find dignified solace in tournament ping pong as they edge slowly towards the ends of their lives.

The documentary, to some degree, ends up being both of these things, but the reason it ends up still being such a compelling, entertaining watch is that right in the middle is an absolutely cracking sports movie, rife with tension, drama, and action.

The film focuses on the Over 85s World Table Tennis Championships in Inner Mongolia, and despite the fact that the competitors are at least 50 years older than the age most athletes in other sports are considered over the hill, the film rarely descends to the level of exploiting the desiccated participants and their reduced abilities for a cheap laugh.

There is the odd exception– Dot, one particularly popular participant in the tournament is 100 years old. Needless to say, Dot’s inability to move even slightly around the table results in hilarity, but what makes it genuinely funny and not sad is largely because of her own sense of humour about herself – she seems just as bemused that she’s up there as we are. And besides, she’s treated like a pop star wherever she goes and clearly having the time of her life, regardless of whether her footwork leads a little to be desired.

Otherwise, the fact that the action takes place between the elderly does not dull its impact – on the contrary, it turn out the older the competitor, the higher the stakes. The action is edited brilliantly, and with a clear eye for sporting narrative – the film-makers make it hard for you not to be invested in the outcome of every match.

Most of the entrants claim that they don’t care about winning (with the exception of the terrifyingly competitive Viennese-Texan, Lisa), but you can see in their eyes how much they want to win really. They are all at an age when battles are fought often and hard-won, so victories – however minor they may ultimately may be – are to be taken and cherished wherever they can.

Impressively, for a documentary clearly aiming for a mainstream audience in the way this one clearly is, Ping Pong doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant side of ageing – there are some grim sequences in a nursing home that serve as a chilling reminder of what awaits some of our protagonists when the tournament ends. Similarly, one entrant plays the tournament with an implant installed in his back to fend off cancer, and at one point nearly has to throw in the towel on a game he is still in with a chance winning simply because he is unable to catch his breath.

Despite this this is primarily a fun film, though – above all else these are truly funny, interesting, articulate characters who it is a pleasure to spend time with – with Les, the charming, bodybuilding raconteur, and Ursula, the sardonic and foul-mouthed ex-German champion being particular highlights.

I’ll admit I was dreading the epilogue, as in a film with this many 80 and 90 year olds in its cast it felt inevitable that there would be some bad news come the end. However, Ping Pong never loses sight of the fact that it wants you ultimately entertain you and uplift you, and this is something it achieves come the end – you’d have to be made of stone for the very final revelation not to leave a smile on your face.

Ping Pong is in cinemas 6 July, for dates and venues go to Ping Pong’s official UK website.

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Paul is a writer originally from Bristol, now based in London, where he writes for a number of websites with the word ‘geek’ in the title, for reasons that are clear to everyone but him. You can find him on Twitter where he indulges in equal parts amateur philosophy and equal parts ruthless self-promotion. He lives in Hackney with people and no pets. His interests are broadly the same as yours.

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