Film Review: ‘Ping Pong’


“It’s not how hard you play, it’s where you put it”, flourishes 85-year-old Lisa Modlich with an acknowledgement towards the cameraman. Since her inaugural table tennis medal in 1992, the octogenarian Modlich has gone on to vanquish around 150 more opponents. Hugh Hartford’s Ping Pong (2012) tells the stories of Lisa and several other OAPs hailing from around the globe and their road to those veteran World Championships, which see 2076 players from 51 countries competing for glory in their respective age groups.

Among the competitors are Les (89) and Terry (81) from the UK, Germans Inga (89) and Ursula (89), Sun Yong Qing (80) from Inner Mongolia and the Swede, Rune (85), along with the astonishing Dorothy (100) from Australia. Hartford introduces us to each of the players in their natural environments: Terry has clear health issues and has just seen his prostate cancer return; the barely mobile Dorothy has just celebrated her centenary; Inge was suffering from dementia until regular table tennis helped to cure her and Les, a former body builder, still lifts weights every week. They are a fascinating cast of characters.

They all live for their table tennis though and it’s at the World Championships that the stories unfold just like in a sports movie, round by round. We see people fall at the initial qualifying hurdle whilst others have much longer runs towards victory. There are heroes, villains and long held rivalries but Hartford never loses sight of the people. It is ultimately their story, not that of the competition or the sport; the players are most certainly the heart of the film in their determination and their friendships.

Win or lose, Ping Pong is a gentle, light-hearted and at times comedic testament to an active mind as the film’s subjects never let their lust for life diminish and as such remind the audience to do the same. When we see Terry back in hospital 6 months after the competition there is the worry of a sad finale but it is rounded off with the news that will put a smile on every face. “I want to keep playing as long as I can” – he says during the competition – “because I don’t want to sit down, and I don’t want to die”. On the evidence of this undoubted crowd-pleaser, they’ve all got a few rallies in them yet.

Ben Nicholson