Towards the beginning of Ping Pong Playa, Christopher “C-dub” Wang (Jimmy Tsai) complains that he would be a basketball star if not for his Chinese roots. Bedecked in a Yao Ming jersey, C-dub blames his genes for making him too short and too slow. But a lack of balla skills is the least of C-dub’s problems. He lives in the shadow of his older brother (Roger Wan), a physician who fulfills his parents’ expectations through both his choice of profession and by annually winning the Golden Cock ping pong championship. C-dub, on the other hand, cannot hold down a job and spends his life sleeping late, playing video games, and boosting his ego by schooling little kids on the basketball court. You can see where this plot is going.
But C-dub's days of shaming his family (his parents’ friends say he “talks like a black person”) are about to end. When his brother and mother are injured in a car accident, it becomes his responsibility to not only take over in the Golden Cock tourney, but also teach his mother’s elementary ping pong class at the Chinese Community Center. C-dub uses this opportunity to hustle his students out of money, including Felix (Andrew Vo, adorable but still unpolished as an actor), a third-grader who, strangely, looks to C-dub as a role model. Of course, it is only a matter of time before C-dub returns the money, enters the tournament, and restores honor to his family.
If the Harold and Kumar movies have proven anything, it's that the slacker comedy no longer belongs solely to Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow. Slackerdom is not limited to whiteness, and it is good that Ping Pong Playa brings a slice of an atypical Chinese-American experience to the screen. It is unfortunate, though, that it comes in the vessel of a film so inane and predictable. The formula is simple: an obnoxious douchebag gets his opportunity to step up and shake free from his idiotic behavior. There really is nothing new here.
Director and writer Jessica Yu fills the film not only with a conventional storyline and stock characters (like the fat kid who’s always sneaking chocolate), but a lot of her scenes come straight from Film Production 101. Clichés abound: when C-dub’s parents and brother simultaneously come up with the idea that he should fill in at the Golden Cock tournament, they look first at one another before the camera focuses on the unsuspecting C-dub. Of course, he spouts protests when the plan, finally, dawns on him. In another scene, C-dub is trying to chat up Felix’s older sister (Smith Cho) as she stands in her garage. How long do you think it takes until she closes the door in his face?
Ping Pong Playa still feels like a rough cut of a film. Profanities are inexplicably censored by the sound of a bouncing basketball. It is impossible to discern the reasoning behind such clumsy censorship. Felix’s age seems to be an object of confusion, as he is called both a third and fourth grader. And there are many superfluous scenes, like the montage of C-dub eating several bowls of cereal. It doesn't help that the song “I Love Cereal” plays in the background. One of the film’s biggest weaknesses is C-dub himself. The character has very few redeeming qualities, and his gangsta styling and excessive shit-talk grows tiresome after the first 10 minutes.
With so few Chinese-American film directors out there, perhaps most disappointing is the lost opportunity to bring an organic, authentic voice to the Chinese-American community. While the film certainly makes allusions to problems facing young Chinese-Americans (cultural clash with the older generations, the sexual stereotyping of women), Yu doesn't address them in a meaningful way. And by populating the film with flimsy stereotypes of other races and sexualities, she undercuts her own vague attempt to make her Chinese-American characters three-dimensional. Buried beneath the infantile script and lame jokes is a noble story about a Chinese-American boy trying to balance assimilation into American culture with respect for his Asian roots. Unfortunately, it’s not worth sifting through the other claptrap to unearth.