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Featured Review

Ping Pong (Re-Release) ★★★



Released: 1986 (Re-Release on 9 Feb 2024)

Director: Po-Chih Leong

Starring: Lucy Sheen, David Yip

In 1986, British-Chinese director Po-Chih Leong took a gamble in his career by making not only his first film in English but the first British-Chinese film ever made. Starring Lucy Sheen in her debut role, Ping Pong broke ground upon its premiere at the 1986 Venice Film Festival and subsequent release – only to be quickly forgotten.

Set in London, Ping Pong follows trainee lawyer Elaine Choi (Sheen) as she is appointed as the executor of the will of Sam Wong, a restaurateur who was mysteriously found dead in Chinatown. However, Sam’s family and friends are reluctant to agree to their respective terms so Elaine unwillingly acts as mediator.

At first glance, audiences may feel that Ping Pong is dated – the slow camera work and low-budget aesthetic encapsulated in the unpolished opening scene exudes an aura of a noir, opening audiences to a sinister world. This unsettling feeling quickly dissipates to accommodate the more conventional direction of a family drama yet the main narrative of Ping Pong – the execution of Sam’s will – becomes lost amid Jerry Liu’s occasionally lax screenplay. The lack of clarity in Ping Pong‘s direction might not only deter audiences from resonating with Elaine but finding out more about British-Chinese cinema, especially as there is a distinct lack of it.

But audiences need to remember that this was made in the 1980s. Channel 4 was established only four years before the release of Ping Pong yet it supported the development of Leong’s first English-language film in its first few years of broadcasting. British film fans will also remember the channel supporting Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s through late-night broadcasts of popular Jackie Chan films and the Chinese Ghost Story season, so Ping Pong was an early indicator of the company championing diverse cinema and the latter recognising a need to break ground in the UK film industry.

With that mission in mind, Ping Pong breaks through multiple layers of conventionality. Not only is it the first British-Chinese film, Leong’s first English-language film and Sheen’s debut performance but it is also the first film to be shot in London’s iconic Chinatown. Making the most of the local area, Leong elevates the film’s comedic culture-clash notes such as particularly unadventurous tourists in a Chinese restaurant while inviting audiences into the area’s seedy underground side of gambling dens, bootleg video shops and peep shows. This boldness to show both the touristy and dark sides of Chinatown allows Leong to develop a battlefield of wills for the dysfunctional Wong family – with Elaine in the middle.

As for the intrepid Elaine, she is initially underestimated by others – the Wongs want someone more familiar with Chinese traditions (and can speak fluent Cantonese) and her boss condescendingly calls her “my little Chinese lawyer”. However, she stays focused on her job with Sheen exuding tenacity and occasional cheek in her performance. However, she occasionally shows vulnerability amid Elaine’s increasing involvement in Chinese society and confusion about her (mostly British) identity. The conflicting British and Chinese cultural elements feed her quirky relationship with Mike (David Yip) – an Anglicised Chinese man who has become the de facto head of the Wong family yet refuses to honour his late father’s wishes. 

The quiet resentment among the Wongs in the background betrays the family politics that threatens the completion of Sam’s will. The themes of filial piety (respecting one’s elders) and son preference see Mike and his brother Alan significantly benefitting from their father’s death yet they are the most Anglicised of the Wongs. Meanwhile, their mum cannot act without Mike’s approval and her stepdaughter Cherry doesn’t get to inherit the warehouse she dutifully works. Through their respective words and vision, Liu and Leong gently reinforce conflicting attitudes between different generations and family members to help resonate with Ping Pong‘s audiences, highlighting the niche that is British-Chinese culture on an accessible level.

Ping Pong may scream modesty but what it does for British-Chinese filmmaking is undeniable. Leong dares to shine a light on an underrepresented pocket of British society and among some uncertain turns, Ping Pong‘s legacy deserves to be recognised.

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