World bounces into steppe in ‘Ping Pong’ |

World bounces into steppe in ‘Ping Pong’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Dawa and Geliban in MONGOLIAN PING PONG, a film by Ning Hao. A First Run Features Release

In “Mongolian Ping Pong,” the Western world seems to have already encroached as far as it can. The film is set on a rural and remote, grassland steppe in present-day Mongolia; the enormous vistas, which get plenty of visual attention from Chinese writer-director Hao Ning, reveal no signs of even a village, much less a city. Yet one young boy of the steppe wears a Yankees cap, and another goes everywhere on his motor scooter. The huts have no electricity or running water, but one family manages to trade for a television set. The goods trader, who rattles around in a pickup truck, doubles as the local medic, and brings a round of vaccinations to the children.

This modest access to the modern world, however, doesn’t necessarily come with any understanding of it. In the opening scene, a family has its portrait taken – the medic/trader is also the photographer – and when he says he will use American scenery for one shot, he rolls in a backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe. The family assembles in front without a blink. The TV is placed outside a hut and affixed to an ungainly antenna which sometimes produces a snowy, shaky image. It is not only America and Europe that are foreign to them; the steppe residents are equally uncomprehending of the movies that are occasionally screened, even when the film is a Chinese production.Enter another product of Chinese culture: a Ping Pong ball that floats down the river that is the center of life on the steppe. TVs, movies, cars and beer are readily accepted pieces of life, because their purpose is apparent and they see adults use them. But a Ping Pong ball is another matter, a total mystery. For a few days at least, the ball becomes the center of the lives of three 7-year-old boys, Bilike, Dawa and Ergoutou. They bicker and bond as they puzzle over the nature of the object – not an egg, not edible, empty, perfectly round. One boy’s grandmother tells them it’s a glowing pearl, but they become dubious when it fails to glow. When even the wise lamas can’t provide answers, the excitement of the discovery descends into disappointment.Television to the rescue. On the TV, the boys see a sketchy image of a Ping Pong ball. Moreover, to their surprise, they learn that the Ping Pong ball is the “national ball of China.” Without map, water or the most fundamental notion of what they are about to do, the three set off for Beijing, to return the ball to its rightful owner, China. That trip is quickly aborted – “Mongolian Ping Pong” is no fairy tale in which 7-year-olds can cross the Gobi desert – and the boys return with their frustration raised another notch.

Only when Bilike has given up his inquiry, after he has been sent off to school in the nearby city, does he come to a startling discovery about the nature of Ping Pong balls.Earlier in the film, viewers will come to a conclusion – that a Ping Pong ball isn’t necessarily central to the film. “Mongolian Ping Pong” uses the boys’ curiosity about the foreign object as an entryway into a quasi-documentary about modern life in a place that has barely changed for centuries. Bilike, Dawa and Ergoutou may never forget the Ping Pong ball and the adventures and discoveries it brings. But what is most memorable for the audience isn’t that moderately interesting story, but the immense plains and isolation of this steppe in Mongolia. And just as much, the sense of day-to-day adventure that it provides, Ping Pong ball or no Ping Pong ball.

“Mongolian Ping Pong” shows Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 23-24, at the Wheeler Opera House. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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