11 September 2006
current cinema: Lü cao di
starring: Hurichabilike, Dawa, Geliban, Badema, and Yidexinnaribu
written by: Ning Hao, Xing Aina, and Gao Jianguo
directed by: Ning Hao
NR, 102 min, 2006, China
It's difficult for an American audience to imagine a place as remote as the grasslands of Mongolia--a land so vast, so barren, that one can travel an entire day in one direction, stand on the highest point, and still see nothing but miles upon miles of grass. A place so isolated that the difference between it and the Gobi desert is the color of the ground. A place where the nearest city is roughly the size of a small town in Arizona. To us, the middle of nowhere is a place where the towns are forty miles apart. In Mongolia, they might refer to that as being too crowded.
Such is the setting for Ning Hao's Lü cao di, a quiet little film in which three small children find a ping pong ball floating down the river, and never having ventured far from their home, haven't a clue what it is. They know only that it must be special, a theory confirmed by Bilike's (Hurichabilike) grandmother, a senile old woman who tells them it's a glowing pearl sent to them by the gods for good fortune. Sadly, it isn't, and when they eventually discover the identity of their treasure, they also learn that ping pong is the national sport and the ball--their ball--is the national ball. The mind of a six year-old being what it is, they assume the nation must be worried about the whereabouts of the national ball, so they head to Beijing to return it, oblivious to the fact that Beijing is hundreds of miles away.
Like many Asian dramas, Lü cao di operates at a pace decidedly slower than your typical Hollywood fare. It develops slowly and organically, seemingly unconcerned with theatrics in the goal of drawing an audience into this deceptively simple story. Hao is content allowing his camera to linger on a shot, as if it has all the time in the world, and while the film could probably benefit from a some small cuts, the overall pace is a good one. When you live in a hut far from civilization, life moves at a different pace, and Lü cao di reflects that without crossing into boredom.
Part of what holds the audience's attention in scenes where nothing is happening is the cinematography of Jie Du, who does a masterful job filming landscapes with what seems like nothing but a tripod and the sun. It's hard to image he's using anything other than natural light and the camera moves perhaps four times in the entire film, but Du makes the most of it, creating some beautiful static shots full of contrast and drama where otherwise there would be none. There's a shot near the end of the first act where Du casts the actors in silhouette against a bright orange sky in a frame that's exactly large enough to hold the pertinent movement of the scene. Hao wisely holds this shot for the entire scene and just lets it play. If there's any justice in the world, Du's work will get bandied around in the Oscar discussion, but unfortunately there's a better chance of the film becoming a blockbuster.
It's interesting to note that Hao's decision to employ static shots with little editing is primarily used by filmmakers who have a great deal of trust in their cast. A prime example would be a film populated by actors with strong theatre backgrounds. But Lü cao di is a film with three children in lead roles who don't appear to have any acting experience whatsoever. All three of them are playing characters given their actual names, and there are moments early in the film where the acting ability of the children is mediocre at best. Consider, though, that these are children who have likely never acted before in their lives, who may very well be natives of the Mongolian grasslands, and the end result of their performances becomes impressive. Add to that the fact that Hao is unable to cobble together a better performance in editing, that the characters play the majority of the scenes without interruption, and both the performances and the direction veer on remarkable.
By the end of the film, Lü cao di transforms itself into an enjoyable little drama--poignant at times, comedic at others--that knows exactly what it wants to do and strives for exactly that, nothing more. Hao shows himself to be a Chinese director with a great deal of potential for showing the poetry of everyday life. That he has the restraint to not just use a single, static camera but also never show us the actual sport of ping pong, is the sign of a director with maturity and confidence.
As for the all-important national ball, it never does make it to Beijing, but it accomplishes something much more important. It exposes the children to the larger world around them while conveying the importance of a small, fragile object. Honestly, how many small children could carry a ping pong ball around for an extended period of time without destroying it?
 According to the IMDB message boards, this translates to "green pastures", but is being released internationally under the title Mongolian Ping Pong, probably because ping pong is much cooler than pastures.
 If by chance you think this is a spoiler, then you must be insane.