Ping pong is one of those deceptively difficult sports. It seems so easy that people readily pick up a paddle and hit a few rounds with friends in what we’ll call basement ping pong. The documentary “Top Spin” is about that pastime taken to a different level: Olympic sport known as table tennis. Following three high school students, first-time co-directors Mina T. Son and Sara Newens take us through their training to the trials and we even get to the London 2012 Olympics.
Son and Newens met during their MFA Documentary Film and Video Program at Stanford University during one of the required group projects. The documentary began as a short, focusing on Ariel Hsing, who at 16 was the top U.S. table tennis player. Son and Newens found out that despite local wonder Erica Wu, who did become a 2012 London Olympian, the Bay Area was a hot bed for table tennis talent.
Widening their focus, Son and Newens show us the journey of three players. Besides Hsing, they include her main rival, Lily Zhang, also from the Bay Area and then hop over to the East Coast to look at Long Island-resident Michael Landers. Landers was then 17, but two years earlier he had become the youngest American male champion.
Yet in the world of table tennis, American champions aren’t really considered contenders. Mainland China dominates the world of table tennis and South Korea is a distant second. The U.S. doesn’t even rank in the top ten or the top 20.
While Son and Newens show us that this threesome are normal kids, thinking about friends and family and college, and they give us enough graphics to give us a feeling of the countdown to the Olympic trails, what they don’t do is ask the hard questions and really push their subjects. This is particularly true for Landers whose easy life at home is contrasted with his training in China.
Other problems is that you don’t really learn that much about the sport of table tennis. Early on we’re told by superimposed words a brief rundown of each of the three, but we’re never really familiarized with what the difference penhold or shakehand styles are and the benefits of one of the other. Further, I’m told what we’re looking for spin, but the filming of the matches doesn’t really show us that spin or help us read the ball. The music on the screener sometimes obscured the interviews and could become annoying. However, these are relatively minor problems.
What is good about this documentary are the subjects are mostly fresh and frank. They aren’t coached and ready with prepared responses. and most of the opening weekend screenings are supported by demonstrations. If the aim is to get more people out to play table tennis, then their campaign strategy is sound and perhaps in time we’ll see the U.S. move up in the world rankings. Newens and Son are both sports fans and are already at work on another documentary. Although the next one will not be a sports documentary, one does hope that they will follow up in the future with sports documentaries that give equal focus on women.
OPENING WEEK APPEARANCES:
Weekend Q&As at Playhouse 7:
Fri 8/21: Filmmakers Mina T. Son & Sara Newens + Teenage Olympian Erica Wu in Person
Sat 8/22: Filmmaker Mina T. Son & Teenage Olympian Erica Wu in Person
Sun 8/23: Filmmaker Mina T. Son & Teenage Olympian Erica Wu in Person
Wed 8/19: Filmmakers Mina T. Son & Sara Newens + Teenage Olympian Erica Wu in Person
Mon 8/24 (NOHO 7) : Filmmakers Mina T. Son in Person
Tues 8/25 (ROYAL): Filmmaker Mina T. Son in Person
Wed 8/26 (CLAREMONT 5): Filmmaker Mina T. Son in Person
Ping Pong Demonstrations at Playhouse 7:
Erica Wu (2012 U.S. Olympian), Grant Li (2015 U.S. National Team Member), Adam Bobrow (Professional Ping Pong Player and Actor) and Kim Gilbert (Professional Ping Pong Player) will be at Playhouse 7 August 19 & 21 to 23 for ping pong demonstrations on a JOOLA table outside the theater beginning at 7pm.