Directed by Hugh Hartford. G. 76 min. Opens Nov. 23 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
A British film that tracks the progress of eight hopefuls at a world championship competition for table-tennis players over the age of 80, Ping Pong fits neatly into two categories of popular docs. The first—let’s call it the Nail Biter—portrays a hard-fought, high-tension battle in an obscure corner of the competitive world, be it the vicious thunderdome of wheelchair rugby in Murderball or the less grisly environs of the crossword tournament in Wordplay. The second category introduces viewers to a group of seniors who display an undiminished lust for life thanks to a collective pursuit, like the Radiohead-loving choir in Young@Heart. An alternate title for any of these might be Geezers Do the Darndest Things.
While Ping Pong hews close to the conventions of both varieties, it’s more than sufficiently endearing and engaging thanks to its cast of nimble-wristed retirees. The subjects with the biggest personalities—like Lisa, a brassy, Vienna-born octogenarian from Texas eager to add a gold medal to her huge trove of silvers—get plenty of chances to charm. But the sibling filmmaking team of Hugh and Anson Hartford also save some room for the less aggressive likes of Inge, a German nursing-home resident who believes that her enthusiasm for table tennis prevented her from sliding into dementia.
All this goes to prove is that if you’re going to load up a movie with human-interest stories, it’s wise to have interesting humans. That’s particularly fortunate when you consider that table tennis—especially when played at the somewhat limited speeds of these players—is only slightly more filmic than a crossword competition. But like any sports doc worth its salt, Ping Pong demonstrates that winning or losing doesn’t matter nearly as much as loving the game you play.