Thursday, November 13, 2014

DOC NYC ’14: Top Spin

Out of the eighty-eight total Olympic medals awarded for table tennis, China has won forty-seven and North Korea has won three, so do not expect the totalitarian-friendly IOC to drop the sport anytime soon. However, a young generation of players dream of winning the first American table tennis medal. Sara Newens & Mina T. Son follow three promising U.S. Olympic team hopefuls throughout the season leading up to the London Games in Top Spin (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang both live in North California and play an aggressive, attacking style of table tennis. Women’s championships often come down to the two of them. Currently, Hsing is number one, but it is always a pitched battle. Long Island’s Michael Landers is also a leading contender, but the odds might be a bit longer for him to secure a spot on the Olympic team. All three have sacrificed much of the traditional high school experience to pursue glory in the games, but Zhang seems to do a better job balancing a social life with her arduous competition schedule.

Right, so don’t call it ping pong. Clearly, all three young athletes train like mad. Newens and Son give viewers a good sense of the physically demanding work they do, as well as the considerable mental preparation required. Of course, they do it all solely with the Olympics in mind, since there is no professional table tennis circuit to speak of in America.

Happily for Newens and Son, the leading contenders are also highly engaging screen presences. It seems like they were born to be interviewed by Bob Costas. Their parents are also frequently seen throughout the film, coming across unflaggingly supportive. According to the post-script, Hsing, Zhang, and Landers have all successfully transitioned to college life, so they obviously did something right. However, the film clearly implies the Zhangs gave greater priority to their daughter’s social development, which is a subject worthy of greater exploration.

Viewers definitely get a thorough understanding of the Olympic qualifying process from Top Spin, but it resists getting bogged down in micro-details. Frankly, the various ball-spin strategies remain utterly mysterious. However, Newens & Son were once again fortunate to have a relatively upbeat (if not necessarily Cinderella story) ending. Anyone who sees their documentary will follow table tennis at the 2016 Rio Games much more closely, looking for the return of familiar names to build on their London experience, which should make NBC delighted. Recommended for fans of the Olympics and scrappy underdogs, Top Spin screens this Saturday (11/15) as part of DOC NYC 2014.