Times Staff Writer

The wry and whimsical “Ping Pong” (selected theaters) begins on a deceptive note of mystery. A camera tracks portentously down a typically crowded street in London’s Chinatown, stopping in front of a dead man in a telephone booth.

In this brief stroke, debuting director Po Chih Leong and his writer Jerry Liu put us in the familiar mood for suspense and intrigue associated with exotic Chinatown settings only to throw us off base, for their purpose is to demolish--not to reinforce--Chinatown cliches. The dead man, a prominent restaurateur and gambler named Sam Wong, has in fact died of natural causes, although Leong is not about to announce this, and the only real mystery, which emerges late in the film, is who it was that Wong had called just before he died.

“Ping Pong” is, however, a quest for identity--that of Anglo-Chinese who are moving into mainstream British life and are in danger of losing their cultural heritage. Wong’s death draws his executor Elaine Choi (Lucy Sheen), a gawkily beautiful young law student, into both amusing and vexing cultural cross-currents as she embarks upon the unexpectedly difficult task of getting his heirs to sign his will. It’s the sensitive quality of the humorous, compassionate observations of Leong and Liu, who met while working in Hong Kong television, coupled with the fresh, angular charm of Sheen that allows “Ping Pong” to squeak by in ingratiating fashion.

For “Ping Pong,” despite its engaging story, is often callow, shamelessly sentimental and finally meandering; it is most definitely not another “My Beautiful Laundrette.” Leong has a tendency to have Sheen strike attitudes when he and Liu should be developing their material to a far greater extent than they have. It would seem that Leong shares with his heroine a striving for sophistication that right now seems beyond him.


“Ping Pong” is most successful in depicting the bantering relationship, inevitably leading to romance, between Elaine and Sam’s handsome, estranged, very Anglicized son Mike (David Yip), who has a trendy restaurant of his own. There’s also much warmth between Elaine and Sam’s widow (Lam Fung), a sweet, traditional wife who believes her late husband was wise in all matters. But why did Sam treat his daughter Cherry (Barbara Yu Ling) so unjustly in the will? And is her husband (Victor Kan) really as sinister as he seems? In wanting to create an aura of mystery rather than the real thing, Leong leaves lots of questions distractingly unanswered.

Born in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong and raised in England, Lucy Sheen, who is making her film debut, is “Ping Pong’s” strongest asset. Her near-Cockney accent collides delightfully with her smart, tailored look to make a distinct, appealing impression. Sheen’s Elaine, who begins to feel like a Ping-Pong ball, batted around by Sam’s squabbling heirs, keeps her feet on the ground even as this gossamer film (Times-rated Mature) threatens to drift away like a colorful Chinese kite in a breeze.

‘PING PONG’ A Samuel Goldwyn release of a Picture Palace production for Film Four International. Producers Malcolm Craddock, Michael Guest. Director Po Chih Leong. Screenplay Jerry Liu; based on an idea by Po Chih Leong. Camera Nick Knowland. Music Richard Harvey. Production designer Colin Pigott. Film editor David Spiers. With David Yip, Lucy Sheen, Robert Lee, Lam Fung, Victor Kan, Barbara Yu Ling, Ric Young, Victoria Wicks, Stephen Kuk, Rex Wei, Hi Ching.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.


Times-rated: Mature.