Director Ning Hao opens his gentle coming-of-age film, Mongolian Ping-Pong, with a visual pun. A family appears to be posing in Beijing's Tiananmen Square; yet when the camera pulls back, it's revealed to be a temporary backdrop. Beyond the curtain illustrating the heart of one of earth's largest cities is a vast expanse of empty country ... this is rural Mongolia, one of earth's most remote and uninhabited spots.
When the traveling photographer finishes, the family members shed their best coats, worn specially for the portrait, and simply melt back into their simple lives at their nearby yurt. For 7-year-old Bilike (Hurichabilike), that means finding his two pals, Dawa (Dawa) and Erguotou (Geliban), and continuing their bumming around.
Bilike's stop at a nearby creek yields a bizarre find: a small, perfectly round white ball that floats and might even glow. It might be an egg, or a magical pearl. All who see it ... when it's carefully drawn from a protected berth within Bilike's jacket ... are dumbfounded. Among the lads, the ball inspires much discussion, various theories of origin and purpose, and, eventually, a somewhat cock-eyed journey.
We, of course, instantly recognize the mysterious object as a Ping-Pong ball. But we can only be charmed that there exists such a place, removed from the endless detritus of our 24-7 consumer culture, where such a prosaic item could seem wondrous. These boys live nearly as did their ancestors ... without electricity ... yet their days are consumed by activities spurred by their lively imaginations. To our eyes, perhaps, these children appear blissfully removed from everything we consider troublesome. But in fact they are no less inquisitive and confused about their world and eventual place in it.
Ping-Pong is lightly plotted, but its simplicity belies a universal story that tugs gently at our hands, drawing us in. And who could not fall under the spell of the steppes, extravagantly photographed here ... lush, green grasslands whose seeming endlessness is bordered only by a blue sky dotted with clouds.
To us, it's this remote land and unchanged lifestyle that seem exotic (in the last scenes, look quickly for this acknowledgment, in a joke that echoes the film's opening). Yet similar to 2003's The Story of the Weeping Camel, also set in rural Mongolia, Ping-Pong also suggests that the encroachment of modern life, with all its attendant benefits and drawbacks, is inevitable. The dad wins a battery-operated television set, which is barely operable, though plans form to upgrade its reception. The boys don't know what a Ping-Pong ball is, yet one lad incongruously sports a New York Yankees cap ... a bit of Western jetsam washed up on the steppes that, as in our lives, may soon lose any power to engender carefree flights of fancy. In Mongolian, with subtitles.