A young lawyer comes to accept who she is, both professionally and personally, in Po-Chih Leong’s comedy-drama.
“Where’s my little Chinese lawyer?”
Elaine (Lucy Sheen) is a young lawyer who’s been tasked with executing the will of the recently-passed Sam Wong (K C Leong). Wong, an important and respected figure in Chinatown, splits his belongings among his friends and family, with various stipulations – none of which the family seems to want to do, leaving Elaine constantly chasing around trying to get everyone to be on the same page. Doing so allows Elaine to connect to the Chinese heritage she left in Macau as a child.
Ping Pong is a film that will likely feel very familiar to a lot of children of immigrant families. Even if you’re deeply entrenched in the culture, like Elaine, you’ll find times when you’re suddenly a foreigner. For Elaine, she’s treated as typically Chinese by her white co-workers, despite having almost no cultural links to it. Elaine’s experiences with cultural dissonance are further emphasised once she spends time with the Wongs. She might not realise it at first, but she’s lost – and it’s in how overwhelmed she gets while handling Sam’s family, that she realises how far removed she was to her origins.
Leong’s film goes deep into more than just one life, though. As much as it is Elaine’s story, it’s those around her who provide the necessary context and content for her growth. While Sam’s friends and family are varied in order to give Elaine as much of a hard time as possible, they also serve a much more important purpose: illustrating the variety of Chinese lives who call central London home. Ping Pong might not have been the first English film with Chinese characters, but it was the first to show such a wide collection of realistic non-caricatures. Alan Wong (Ric Young) is, as he describes “a typical Chinese son”, having become a lawyer, while Mike (David Yip)’s extravagant Italian restaurant has him embrace England fully, leaving almost no trace of his heritage in his personality.
It’s a comedy, don’t get me wrong, so there are broad strokes that are painted. What’s important to note here is that those strokes are no different to the ones used for non-Asian characters. Mr Chen (Robert Lee)’s zaniness and Mike’s absurd whimsies wouldn’t be much different were it put onto a white character. Leong treats his characters with respect, and so while not every joke lands, and some character beats are a bit too silly to take seriously, they still come across as real people with real struggles.
The many quirky characters in Sam Wong’s life are a way for Leong to show us a side of Chinatown that many British viewers wouldn’t have been too familiar with. David Yip had recently made waves as the title character in The Chinese Detective, but there was little else for British audiences. Ping Pong’s greatest accomplishment is that it was the first British film that focused on East Asians, directed, written by and starring people with ties to it. All of this is bolstered by a great cast, including a charming first performance by Lucy Sheen. It’s played almost like a coming of age story – but more like a coming to terms story. Coming to terms with who you are professionally, personally and culturally.
Ping Pong initially screened on TV, and while this is usually something of a negative point – thanks to television’s generally lower budget, production values and more limited content – this actually works in its favour. At least, historically. Having been broadcast on Channel 4 means that more people would have seen it, and more people would have experienced what it had to say, allowing Leong to reach a wider audience. Sure there are places where it hasn’t aged incredibly well, and other times when the comedy might be a bit too dumb for its own good, but Ping Pong still manages to stay relevant, important and delightful to this day.
Verdict: In many ways Ping Pong is much like its leading lady: it’s occasionally lost, and stumbles its way around, but ultimately is charming, with much to say.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Violence: Just a random death or so
Subtitles: Nicely [not] used in scenes where Elaine is not meant to understand
Champagne tower: That’s some steady hand you’ve got, Mike
Ping Pong (1986)
Director: Po-Chih Leong
Writer: Po-Chih Leong
Lucy Sheen – Elaine Choi
David Yip – Mike Wong
Robert Lee – Mr. Chen
Lam Fung – Ah Ying
Victor Kan – Siu Loong
Barbara Yu Ling – Cherry Wong
Ric Young – Alan Wong
Hi Ching – Jimmy
Victoria Wicks – Maggie
K C Leong – Sam Wong
David Lyon – Leter
Juliet Hammond-Hill – Sarah