For a long time, Asian America has needed a rousing underdog sports film to call its own. Something to add to the diversity of fan favorites such as Friday Night Lights, A League of Their Own, Remember the Titans, and, most recently, McFarland, USA. Sara Newens’ and Mina T. Son’s Top Spin is that film. The sport? Table tennis. Ping pong, if you like.
If you have any doubts about table tennis as a real sport, the first five minutes of the documentary will convince you that top players are world-class athletes. Top Spin is the story of three champions trying to achieve the biggest dream of their young lives: making the US Olympic team and competing in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Even if you have watched competitive table tennis, you may not know how physically and mentally-demanding the sport can be at this level. “Table tennis is a lot like martial arts and boxing combined with chess,” explains one player. Believe it.
Top Spin follows Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, and Michael Landers across the globe as they train and compete their way toward London. Born in Fremont, California, Hsing is the daughter of immigrant parents, her mother from China, her father from Taiwan. Fifteen-year old Zhang, a Chinese American, was born in Palo Alto only a year after Hsing. Landers, who is white, hails from Long Island and is the oldest of the bunch at seventeen. When they are not competing, the narrative tension comes from how much table tennis distances their lives from those of their peers. Will they go to college or remain on the circuit? Can they afford time away from training to go to a friend’s birthday party?
Newens and Son are aware of the “model minority” and “tiger mom” stereotypes that saddle any media representation of hardworking Asian Americans. Hsing’s father is a memorable character who devours sports psychology books and videos of Chinese table tennis matches. Hsing’s mother even suggests that he has become a kind of “tiger father.” “I love it!” he admits. But when the directors cut to Landers’ story, we understand that the culture truly relevant to understanding these athletes is competitive sports culture, not monolithic Asian culture. (Landers even lives in China for a while to train.) If the teenagers compete partly for the sake of their parents, which the narrative seems to suggest, their desire is not bound by ethnicity or race.
Indeed, nothing about Top Spin characterizes the Hsing and Zhang families as exotic or “perpetual foreigners.” Even when Zhang eats a meal with her mother (on a ping pong table!), the food is not a marker of ethnic difference; they share a pizza and fruit. If the film’s mise-en-scène makes any social identity meaningful, it is the three competitors’ privileged class status. Whether we see manicured Silicon Valley or venerable Nassau County neighborhoods, we know that competitive table tennis is not an inexpensive way of life. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (whom Hsing calls “Uncle Warren”) even make cameos.
Top Spin is well-paced and benefits from the natural tension that comes with watching a competitive sport. You root for all three players. But I was struck by the attention the film paid to Zhang during a match with a tough 42-year old competitor. “When you walk out on the court, everybody’s staring at you. It can be a little bit intimidating,” Zhang says. “As a part of the mental game I try to block out all of the crowd.” At that point, the directors mute the diegetic crowd noise for a moment so that the viewer experiences the match from Zhang’s point of view. This is a familiar trope in sports films, but it may be a first for Asian Americans. More please.
I won’t spoil the ending, but allow me to say that the film is remarkable for representing the diversity of people of Chinese heritage, from the Hsing and Zhang families to others of the diaspora to the Chinese national Olympic team. How refreshing it is to see the competitive nature of Chinese people without it being framed as threatening or essentially antagonistic. You admire their commitment to excellence, which is what they all have in common. Top Spin is a delight. Four out of four stars.
(David Shih is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire).