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Ping Pong: Film Review

The Bottom Line

The good-natured doc emphasizes the inspirational value of senior-citizen athletes.

Opens

Tuesday, May 28 (Docurama)

Directors-Producers-Directors of photography

Hugh Hartford, Anson Hartford

Geriatric table-tennis stars compete in a China-hosted world championship.

Though you'd never know from its opaquely generic title, Hugh and Anson Hartford's Ping Pong is less about the rec-room pastime than about a half-dozen or so aging players who've made it their turf. Observing fierce competitiveness at an age when most people have put such passions aside, the doc is sure to be called inspirational; even if it doesn't quite reach that level, its characters are amiable oldsters whose dexterity is impressive even for viewers reluctant to call this plastic-ball game a sport.

Building to a tourney in China whose two thousand-plus entrants come from 51 countries, the Hartfords introduce us to players -- most in their 80s or 90s; one hitting the century mark -- who hail from Germany, Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere. Only a couple are unusually colorful: Les D'Arcy, a 90-year-old bodybuilder who looks better shirtless than most 30-something cinephiles, enjoys speaking in literary quotations; Lisa Modlich, who claims to have flirted for the French Resistance, has won so many medals she throws away the ribbons and keeps stacks of medallions on her trophy shelves.

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The Hartfords, thankfully, avoid many opportunities for sentimentality here. But in a few choice moments they use the players' histories with ping pong as windows into broader truths about aging. German Inge Hermann recalls that when her husband of 40 years died, "suddenly food didn't taste good anymore... so I stopped eating." She didn't pick up the paddle until 1997, as a kind of physical therapy after a stroke.

More interested in these stories than in competition, the film spends a half hour introducing characters before it follows them to China. Once there, it offers just enough action footage to sate fans of the game and to demonstrate to outsiders the demands it puts on an aging body: Here, the need to move quickly from one corner of the table to another highlights the small things that turn into serious challenges as joints stiffen and muscle deteriorates.

After chronicling the inevitable disappointments and occasional drama of the China tournament, the Hartfords offer a coda whose surprise bits of news feel more like an equal-opportunity balm than a genuine revelation. Few will complain, though, about the chance to see men and women we've rooted for get another chance at the gold.

Production Company: Banyak Films

Directors-Producers-Directors of photography: Hugh Hartford, Anson Hartford

Executive producers: Maxyne Franklin, Beadie Finzi

Music: Orlando Roberton

Editor: John Mister

No rating, 76 minutes