Best known for her career as a documentarian (she won an Oscar for 1997’s Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien), Jessica Yu makes her narrative feature debut with Ping Pong Playa, an often gut-busting sports fable about a wannabe NBA star who becomes the unlikely hero of his ping-pong-crazed family.
Lead actor Jimmy Tsai’s performance as Christopher "C-Dub" Wang is so dead-on hilarious, I assumed he was a stand-up comedian. Nope: "I met Jimmy because he was the production accountant at [Ping Pong Playa production company] Cherry Sky Films," Yu explains. "I went to a screening of short films where he showed these humorous spots he had made for an online clothing company. I remember thinking this was a great character to use for something. So when [Cherry Sky’s] Joan Huang and Jimmy approached me about working on [a comedy] together, my first thought was we have to put this character C-Dub in it."
The first-time thespian was already a naturally funny guy (he cowrote the film with Yu), but he trained for six months to get his skills in line with the film’s ping-pong storyline. "There’s something inherently funny about the sport," Yu says. "Not to take anything away from it, but no matter how hard you hit a ping-pong ball, it still makes that smack! So the idea of putting somebody who was kind of bombastic into that world was ripe for opportunity."
Yu says her background as a champion fencer influenced her desire to make a sports movie. "I think there were certainly discussions about the kind of sports that Asians are known for being good at whether it’s diving, or ping-pong, or to some extent fencing. I just think it’s interesting that a character like C-Dub has no interest in excelling at what he sees as marginalized sports but that tends to be where you see a lot of Asians on the podium."
As for Yu, "My game’s pretty terrible! We had a ping-pong table on set at all times and if it’s sitting there long enough you’re gonna play. I’m still not good at it, but I enjoy it a little more now."
PING PONG PLAYA
Opens Fri/5 in Bay Area theaters