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Originally published Friday, September 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Ping Pong Playa": A bouncy spin on culture, values — and pingpong

"Ping Pong Playa" is a sweet, charming and funny romp about a gangsta-ese-spouting Chinese-American slacker with pipe dreams of becoming an NBA jock. But when the family pingpong school faces hard times, he's forced to step up and claim his destiny.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Ping Pong Playa," with Jimmy Tsai, Andrew Vo, Khary Payton, Jim Lau, Roger Fan, Elizabeth Sung. Directed by Jessica Yu, from a screenplay by Yu and Jimmy Tsai. 96 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, including some sexual remarks and drug references. Several theaters.

Before moving on to the fall roundup of studio stories about football glory, take time out for this sweetly charming and very funny micro-budget movie about tribulation and triumph on the pingpong table.

"Ping Pong Playa" takes its trifling task as seriously as a high-school champ seeking rookie adoration in the big leagues. Christopher "C-Dub" Wang (Jimmy Tsai) is a Southern California slacker with pipe dreams of NBA stardom. His primary source of self-idolization is slam-dunking and cherry-picking on the 10-year-olds he hangs with at the neighborhood basketball court ("Access denied!").

C-Dub has wrapped himself in a cultural crazy quilt of hip-hop affect that's constantly in danger of being doused by a wet blanket of reality and his close-knit Chinese-American community. Overshadowed by an older brother who's a successful doctor and ace trainer at his parents' pingpong school, C-Dub cares more about his superstar dreams of becoming a wisecracking spokesmodel for an athletic sportswear company than he does about a real job, let alone the family business or his heritage.

When injuries take his mother and brother out of the game before a critical pingpong match, C-Dub has to step up to the paddle, not only to save face for his family, but also to claim his destiny as a pingpong champ.

The gangsta-ese patter of Tsai's character grew out of a routine he created in the persona of a cocky pro jock. His act is an amusingly wacky fit for the suburban locale and pleasantly informal backdrop of Chinese-American culture. Tsai co-wrote the script with director Jessica Yu with an East-meets-West ear that manages to poke fun and gently nurture the increasing familiarity of the modern melting pot.

A well-regarded documentarian, this is Yu's first feature, and she has a deft touch with the quick, offhand comedy and standardized structure that mostly stays fast-paced and fresh. There's a fond sense of contemporary family values in the lives of the Wang clan that threads its way through the homogenized ethnic roles of all the supporting players. C-Dub can be kind of a jerk, but his priority is a steady sense of honor, whether it's living up to his obligations or engaging in absurdist trash talk with kids less than half his age.

"Ping Pong Playa" falters on formula only occasionally, but otherwise remains a consistently agreeable romp that strikes just the right chord of ironic sentimentally.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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