NEW YORK -- If memory serves correctly, in the annals of sports movies there has yet to appear a film devoted to the game of table tennis. That oversight has been rectified with the appearance of "Ping Pong," a new Japanese epic that treats the game with a reverence bordering on fetishism. This tale of teen friendship and pingpong rivalry has been a hit internationally but is unlikely to find much commercial traction here despite a truly impressive visual style that renders the sport with as much excitement as possible.
That style comes courtesy of the one-named Sori, a visual effects specialist making his directorial debut who applies every trick of his trade to film the series of intense matches depicted in the film. Employing slow motion, digital effects, bizarre camera angles, etc., the director invests these scenes with an inventiveness that almost, but not quite, overcomes their repetitiveness.
Not that action is everything here. As is so often the case with Japanese films, "Ping Pong" approaches its story of teen angst with a nearly melodramatic level of seriousness. It revolves around the relationship between two players: the inaccurately named Smile (Arata), who is constantly sporting a glum expression, and his best friend, Peco (Yosuke Kubozuka), so outgoing that he borders on manic.
Ironically, Smile, though a better player, cares little for the game, while Peco is obsessive about winning. When the latter is rudely defeated by a bald opponent dubbed the "Dragon" (Shidou Nakamura), Smile is forced to take his pingpong rather more seriously.
Overlong and overstuffed with characters and situations, "Ping Pong" doesn't really succeed on a dramatic level. But there is no denying its skill in rendering its chosen milieu with an intense visual immediacy.