Review: ‘Ping Pong: The Triumph,’ starring Deng Chao, Sun Li, Liang Chao and Wu Jing

February 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Deng Chao in “Ping Pong: The Triumph” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Ping Pong: The Triumph”

Directed by Deng Chao and Yu Baimei

Mandarin with some language in Italian and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Asia and Europe from 1989 to 1995, the dramatic film “Ping Pong: The Triumph” (based on true events) features a cast of Asian and white characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former professional tennis table player reluctantly becomes a coach of China’s national men’s tennis table team, which he turns around from a losing streak to becoming world champions. 

Culture Audience: “Ping Pong: The Triumph” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of table tennis/ping pong and true stories about sports victories against the odds.

A scene from “Ping Pong: The Triumph” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

Even if people who watch “Ping Pong: The Triumph” don’t know before seeing the movie that it’s based on a true story, the movie’s title and marketing materials already reveal that the team at the center of the story is going to win a championship. It’s a very formulaic and predictable “underdog” sports story, but there are enough riveting scenes of table tennis/ping pong competitions to keep viewers interested. These action scenes are well-filmed, even though the screenplay is somewhat bland.

Directed by Deng Chao and Yu Baimei, “Ping Pong: The Triumph” is a dramatic retelling of China’s national men’s table tennis team going from a losing streak in 1990 and 1991, to becoming world champions in 1995. The movie takes place in various parts of Asia and Europe. Six people are credited with writing the screenplay: Li Feng, Liu Pei, Meng Hui, Yu Baimei, Zhang Yan and Zhong Wei. That’s a lot of people for a screenplay that is competent but not very innovative.

The movie begins in 1989, in Italy, where table tennis coach Minjia Dai (played by Deng Chao) has been mugged on a street by a boy and his adult accomplice. (The Minjia Dai character is based on the real-life coach Cai Zhenhua.) It’s one more stress in Dai’s life at the time. His wife Ying Wang (played by Sun Li) is eight months pregnant at home in China, and he’s anxious about being away from her.

Dai has recently renewed contract to work for $50,000 a year as a table tennis coach in Italy. He’s been offered a chance to return to China to coach table tennis for the national men’s team, but he declines. Dai has some painful memories of playing table tennis in China. He used to be a professional table tennis player in China, but he retired from playing at the age of 24, after he narrowly missed out on a chance to be in the Olympics.

China’s team won the gold medal for the World Tennis Table Championships in 1981, 1983, 1985 and 1987. China has won more gold medals at the World Tennis Table Championships than any other country. In 1989, the team won the silver medal. However, by 1990, the team was on an alarming losing streak with little hope of winning a gold medal. China wants a coach who can turn things around and bring back China’s status as gold-medal world champions for this team.

One of the other reasons for Dai’s reluctance is that China’s national men’s team for table tennis has been on a downard spiral, and he doesn’t want to take on the responsibilty of coaching a losing team. Of course, Dai changes his mind and begins coaching the team in 1991. Dai tells his wife that if he fails, he can go back to coaching table tennis in Italy.

“Ping Pong: The Triumph” then shows the expected up-and-down experiences and challenges that Coach Dai goes through in coaching this formerly victorious and now underdog team. “Ping Pong: The Triumph” includes competition scenes that take place in China, South Korea, Germany and Sweden. The most exciting scenes depict the World Tennis Table Championships in 1993 and 1995.

The movie’s supporting characters are mostly generic, but a few stand out for having memorable personalities. Coach Xiaodong Ni (played by Liang Chao), who previously coached the team, is kind of a stereotypical sidekick that is in the movie for comic relief. Coach Ni has stayed on the team as an assistant coach to help Coach Dai. Coach Li Da (played by Wu Jing) is their somewhat stern supervisor. Even though all three coaches have an influence on the team, Coach Dai is the one who becomes the team’s greatest motivator and strategist.

The journey for him isn’t easy. At first, Dai doesn’t handle the media scrunity very well. One day, he sees a photographer taking pictures of him on a street. Dai gets unnerved by the attention, takes the photographer’s camera, and rips the film out of the camera. Dai and the team also experience racism and xenophobia from some white Europeans who underestimate them.

Dai gets defensive and insecure when anyone asks him why he quit being a professional tennis table player. The “what ifs” still cause him to sometimes doubt his decision, especially when people imply he didn’t live up to his potential as a tennis table player. Of course, it’s easy to predict that Dai’s coaching of these young teammates helps him come to terms with his decision to leave professional table tennis when he was 24.

Dai’s coaching job requires him to travel a lot, so the movie briefly shows how all this traveling has meant sacrificing aspects of his personal life. There’s a scene where Dai is far from home because of his job, and he is on the phone with his wife Wang. She tells him that their son has talked for the first time, and she puts the toddler on the phone so Dai can hear him. Dai is overcome with emotion at knowing he can’t be there in person, and he breaks down in tears. These personal moments are brief, because the movie is mostly about the team’s training and tennis table competitions.

One of the biggest flaws of “Ping Pong: The Triumph” is that the character development is somewhat lacking. A little too much time is spent focusing on Dai, and the movie doesn’t really give much personality to the players on the team. One of the players who stands out is Gong Feng (played by Cai Yida), because he is the oldest member of the team and treated like an odd man out, but there’s nothing that he and the other team members say that’s particularly memorable. Likewise, the players and coaches on the opposing teams are completely devoid of any charisma.

“Ping Pong: The Triumph” is more than about winning games. There’s also an obvious message in the movie about national pride for China. All aspects of the movie (including the writing, direction and acting) are not terrible, but neither are they outstanding. For people who want the sports-movie equivalent of comfort food, “Ping Pong: The Triumph” has enough to satisfy, as long as people don’t expect anything extraordinary about this film.

China Lion Film Distribution released “Ping Pong: The Triumph” in select U.S. cinemas and in China on February 17, 2023.

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