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Where EAST meets the Northwest

PLASTIC PEARL. Set against the backdrop of the magnificent Mongolian grasslands and the huge sky that towers above them, Mongolian Ping Pong tells the story of a boy who finds a mysterious white ball floating in a creek, which none of his friends or family can identify. When he eventually learns the object is "the national ball" of China, he sets out to return it. (Photo courtesy of Bavaria Film Internation)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #29 (July 18, 2006), page 20.

As vast as the steppe, as slow as childhood

Mongolian Ping Pong

Directed by Ning Hao
Produced by Lu Bin and He Bu
Distributed by First Run Features

By Josephine Bridges

Set against the backdrop of the magnificent Mongolian grasslands and the huge sky that towers above them, a ping-pong ball is a mysterious matter indeed. Most of us grownups would be startled to observe such an object bobbing in one of the creeks that wind lazily through that landscape, but imagine being seven years old and discovering something as perfectly round and white as the full moon, only so small you can hold it in your hand.

Mongolian Ping Pong is primarily the story of the adventures and misadventures set in motion when Bilike, the youngest member of a cheerfully eccentric nomadic household, finds something that none of his friends or neighbors have seen before.

At first he and his friends Dawa and Erguotou take turns tapping the ball against their teeth and licking it, then Bilike takes it to show his wonderful grandmother, who has told him earlier that river spirits live upstream. Yes, she concurs, setting aside her drop spindle for a moment, it is a spirit’s treasure, probably a "glowing pearl." When Bilike reports back to his friends only to have his grandmother’s veracity questioned, he counters, as any good grandson anywhere in the world would, "Maybe your grandma lies, but mine never does."

The greatest strength of Ning Hao’s third feature film is that its protagonists are completely believable children, and they take us back to our own childhoods with their quarrels and disappointments and squeals of unexpected delight. Mongolian Ping Pong moves at such a slow pace that it’s at times a challenge to keep from nodding off, but this is also the pace of childhood. The director also evokes the days of our youth by posing questions that are answered very slowly — Is Bilike’s sister Wurina successful in rolling the inner tube so as to encircle the bottle, thus ensuring her father’s blessings on her attempt to join a song and dance troupe? — or not at all — Why does Bilike hide his grandmother’s drop spindle, and does she ever find it?

While the boys are trying to figure out what their strange treasure is — and once they learn that it is "the national ball" of China, what to do with it — various subplots among the grownups keep us engaged.

Siriguleng is a travelling salesman of sorts, and he’s got his eye on Bilike’s sister. He and Bilike’s father are constantly making minor business deals, with sheep as the coin of the realm. A coffee pot and cups from America costs one lamb, for example, while a marginal TV is worth two sheep. Bilike’s mother, never one to spare the rod, marvels when her daughter tells her that there are no beatings in the school Bilike will soon attend.

Meanwhile, the three boys, honor bound to return The Ball to The Nation "which must be worried about it," have set out for Beijing. The police officer who eventually rescues them and brings them home informs them that not only do they need a visa for Beijing, they were also going in the wrong direction.

While Mongolian Ping Pong is certainly populated by a quirky crowd with some unusual ideas, it is a story respectfully told about people whose dignity is never in question. The fact that these nomads are living on the steppe of Mongolia much as they did 800 years ago is evidence that this way of life works, and Ning Hao knows it.