Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…
My admittedly limited experience with contemporary Swedish cinema has taught me a few things about the country, and I’d like to share them with you now. The land is covered in six feet of snow year round, and that snow is inhabited by bullies. While many Swedes are normal blondes, some are in fact brunette vampires. Everything in Sweden, from the people to the plot-lines, moves slower than a molasses-covered snail sitting still on a glacier. All of those things once again hold true for the recent film, The King of Ping Pong.
Rille (Jerry Johansson) is a large, introverted, awkward teenager living in a tiny town in the north of Sweden. He lives with his mother, a portly woman in her own right, and his younger brother, Erik (Hampus Johansson). As Rille himself states, the two brothers are yin and yang. Erik is compact, athletic, popular, and has actually held a girl’s boob in his hand. Rille is none of those things and has only held his own. There are three joys in his life… eating, his father’s rare visits home, and the game of ping pong.
Ping pong is the one area where Rille rules, and he takes charge of the game at the local youth center where he easily dominates every opponent and retains the key to the paddle cabinet. (Don’t let the title fool you into expecting any Forrest Gump or Balls of Fury-like table tennis here though. His opponents suck and Rille is barely competent, which explains why there’s actually only a few minutes of game play in the film.) When his father finally arrives with another woman in tow, a secret is revealed that answers the question as to why Rille and Erik are so different. This revelation finally breaks the frozen and inactive nature of both the characters and the film itself and leads to a tragedy that briefly propels one of the brothers into absurdity.
That final act is where The King of Ping Pongloses it’s slow but steady footing. Until that point, the movie is content to amble along methodically and purposefully. It focuses on it’s characters and setting with lingering detail and exquisite patience, and doesn’t rush anything for the sake of traditional narrative structure. Most films are unable to maintain viewer interest without staggered pops of action, but first-time director Jens Jonsson gives his debut weight and confidence through a combination of the characters, the actors portraying them, and a setting that becomes a cold and deceptively empty character itself. But the lightly humorous and realistic world he’s created doesn’t transition well into the suspenseful melodrama he tries for towards the end. The actions become unbelievable and over-the-top, and they just don’t mesh with what came before.
Fortunately, Jonsson manages to recover from that misstep and return the movie to the solid ground of two brothers trying to relate to each other, to their broken family, and to the world outside. The brothers Johansson (no relation in real life) give excellent performances, as do the handful of supporting characters around them. Georgi Staykov as the father and Frederik Nilsson as mom’s beau both provide some laughs as men without a clue, and Alicia Stewen is cute and intriguing as Anja, the girl who does drawings of hunky men in sexual positions and who just may have a crush on Rille. The King of Ping Pong is a solid entry into the coming-of-age film genre, and while it’s pace (or lack of one) may put off some viewers it’s definitely worth a watch for the rest of us.
The King Of Ping Pong played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, but has yet to receive a theatrical or DVD release in the US. Check out the trailer below.
Bottom Line: An interesting and peculiarly Swedish take on the coming-of-age theme, the movie is worth watching for folks with patience. Very little “happens” in the first 3/4 of the film, but actions towards the end become mildly absurd. Believable acting from both Johanssons (Jerry in particular), beautiful cinematography, and a solid directing debut from Jonsson. A handful of anti-American comments seem out of place and uneccessary, at least to this American reviewer. And what’s the deal with the very little and very poor ping pong in a movie called The King of Ping Pong?!
Related Topics: Foreign Objects