Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 11, 2006

Mongolian Ping Pong

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

Now available in home video, last year’s “Mongolian Ping Pong” has all the elements that made “The Story of the Weeping Camel” such an appealing film. It is filmed on location in China’s Inner Mongolia, uses nonprofessional actors and employs a folkloric plot to great advantage.

After seven year old Bilike discovers a ping pong ball floating by in a nearby stream, he becomes convinced that it was sent by river spirits. After his grandmother assures him that this is true and refers to it as a “glowing pearl,” it becomes a gift from the gods in his youthful eyes. His eventual discovery of the ping pong ball’s true origins constitutes a coming of age tale that will be appealing to all ages. Unlike the cynically packaged “family films” that get mass produced in Hollywood, this is the real thing.

The plot is reminiscent of the 1980 “The Gods Must Be Crazy” that recounts the worship of a Coke bottle by Kalahari Desert Bushmen after it is thrown from an airplane. Unlike the exploitative cheap humor of that film, “Mongolian Ping Pong” is deeply respectful of its characters. Director Ning Hao, not Mongolian himself, makes this clear:

Mongolia, whether for the East or West, is such an enigmatic place. With their small horses and efficient yurt tent homes, these are the people who conquered every piece of reachable land 800 years ago. In a very short period of time, the Mongolians established history’s biggest empire with their legendary invincibility. However, their empire disappeared in an equally enigmatic way. The Mongolians then returned to the barren grasslands of their ancestors where they continue their nomadic existence still today. The vast grasslands environment plays a part in shaping Mongolian children’s unruly character. When seeing them ride freely on horseback on the wide-open landscape, I am deeply touched. Their childhood, like everyone else’s around the world, is full of questions and confusions. Those questions and confusions may either be clarified or simply forgotten along the way. All just a part of life.

Like “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” Ning Hao’s film is very much taken up with the impact of modern technology and the outside world on Mongolian life, which they generally take in stride. In one scene, the family haggles with the price of “American tea” (coffee actually) with the local peddler, for which they refuse to pay more than one lamb. In another, Bilike’s father struggles with the placement of a TV antenna cobbled together with wire and old tin plates in a manner that suggests Ralph Kramden’s antics in a classic Honeymooner episode.

Whatever the intrusions of the modern world, the Mongolians seem deeply at home on the steppes. The true lesson of the movie, which should not be lost on the children and parents who see it, is that you don’t need a lot of fancy toys or designer jeans to be happy. Bilike and his friends have a great time roaming free on horses. A single ping pong ball gives them far more pleasure than the latest X-Box would give a pampered suburbanite child.

Beyond the pleasure afforded by the interactions between the various characters, who are directed with obvious great insight by Ning Hao, is that which is given by the cinematography. Hao has a fantastic eye for the stark beauty of the Mongolian steppes. In scene after scene, your breath is taken away by the sight of a full moon or a rainbow over the rolling grasslands. It is simply the most visually compelling film I have seen this year.

Although I am not sure I will have the time to see it myself, the director of “The Story of the Weeping Camel” has a new film now showing in New York and other theaters in the U.S. Titled “Cave of the Yellow Dog,” it once again touches on the clash between tradition and modernity as Slant Magazine’s Nick Schrager relates:

With The Cave of the Yellow Dog, director Byambasuren Davaa only tweaks the template of her 2004 docudrama The Story of the Weeping Camel, employing a slightly more melodramatic narrative for her depiction of the day-to-day routines and cultural predicament of nomadic Mongolians. The friction between her real-life protagonist clan’s traditional customs and the outlying modern world remains the backbone of Davaa’s ethnographic cinema, in which eloquent, authentic panoramas of the Mongolian plains, nonfiction snapshots of time-honored rituals, and lightly dramatized scenes are all tinged with a mournfulness wrought from the nagging incompatibility of the conventional and the contemporary.

1 Comment »

  1. […] have a very high regard for Ning Hao and recommend an earlier film titled “Mongolian Ping-Pong” that is available as a DVD from Netflix or streaming on Fandor, an arthouse counterpart to […]

    Pingback by 2014 NY Asian Film Festival: “No Man’s Land” | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 1, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

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