HOT DOCS 2012 (Toronto) – The Record Breaker/Ping Pong (Double-bill) Reviews (Kirk Haviland)

HOT DOCS 2012 (Toronto)

The Record Breaker

Directed by Brian McGinn

Ping Pong

Directed by Hugh Hartford

In my last official Hot Docs review of the 2012 festival I will look at this double-bill devoted to athletes in their mature years still executing at the highest competitive levels. One film follows a man with the most Guinness Book World Records currently, the other is about the World Championships of Table Tennis and the competitors in the over 80 division.

Ashrita Furman is a health food store owner who has one very encompassing obsession, he is obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records and setting as many of them as he possibly can. To date, Ashrita has set over 300 world records and holds the record for owning the most records at one time, a staggering 144. As a teen Ashrita seemed destined to become a lawyer like his father, until a decision as a teenager led him to become a Buddhist. It was his decision to follow the teachings of Guru Sri Chinmoy and his belief that enlightenment can be achieved through sporting achievements that started Ashrita on the path of his first world record. After that he was hooked, setting record after record and becoming one of the most prolific of the record setters in Guinness history. Oh and the film documents his quest to climb Machu Picchu…on stilts.

Ping Pong introduces us to its eight focused characters through a sequence that takes us around the globe, introducing us to each of the characters through their pre-tournament training, or lack thereof. We meet the UK contingent, Terry, the reigning over-80 world champion who also happens to be fighting cancer throughout his entire body, and Les, the 89 year-old doubles champion who still trains full out with weights every day. We head to Sweden to meet Rune, who’s very interested in what Les has been doing to prepare. Rounding out the men is Sun from Inner Mongolia, participating in his first world championship, who feels no need to prepare because Ping Pong is an Asian dominated sport right? On the women’s side comes a duo from Germany. Ursula Bihl, the reigning women’s champ, a cantankerous and hilarious lady whose son has decided to join her to see firsthand what this Ping Pong Championship is all about. Then there’s Inge, participating for the first time, Inge has managed to use ping pong to work her way out of a dementia ward at her nursing home. Over in the US we meet the ultra-competitive Lisa, determined to win at any cost. And last, but most definitely not least, we are introduced to Dot at her 100th birthday party. Dot becomes a minor celebrity at the tournament because of her age and the fact that she needs her wheelchair to get her to and from the table. We follow all eight through the qualifying rounds all the way to the finals, for some. We witness the triumph and defeat, but mostly the determination of these athletes to whom age is merely a formality.

Ping Pong is a rousing crowd pleaser that delivers in so many ways. Terry’s health issues are heart wrenching, especially when they make their presence known during the tournament. Lisa and her competitive edge could easily make her the villain of the piece, but the filmmakers wisely allow her story to unfold without this context and you end up rooting for her in the end.  The German Duo of Inge and Ursula almost steal the entire film though, as Inge’s story is heartwarming and Ursula’s acerbic wit will have you rolling in the aisle. Les and Rune’s friendship shines through and despite being rivals they clearly have each other’s support. Dot and Sun’s stories end early, but they clearly enjoyed the experiences. Without spoiling anything, what happens to the German Duo at the end had me standing and applauding.

Easily the most accessible documentary I saw at Hot Docs 2012, it also stands out as one of the best. As rousing and effective as 2007’s excellent Young at Heart, but a lot lighter in tone, Ping Pong is a Must See for lovers of that doc. Without any context, Ping Pong is still a strong recommend. We can only hope that the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema or TIFF Bell Lightbox pick up this gem for a proper theatrical run.

Till Next Time

Movie Junkie TO

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