Movie review: The King of Ping Pong

Movie review: The King of Ping Pong
The King of Ping Pong (Ping-pongkingen)

The first feature-length film by Swedish director Jens Jonsson has generated a fair share of excitement — the movie opened this year’s Gothenburg Film Festival and picked up two awards at Robert Redford’s prestigious Sundance Festival. And deservedly so.

Set in a sleepy town in northern Sweden that doesn’t appear to have quite reached the 1990s yet (à la Napoleon Dynamite), The King of Ping Pong follows the lives of two brothers, Rille (Jerry Johansson) and Erik (Hampus Johansson), and charts their turbulent relationship.

Rille, a chubby teenager lacking self-confidence is all too familiar with the role of hapless victim, thanks to the other kids in town who habitually kick snow in his face should he have the misfortune to cross their path. Erik, on the other hand, is slim, self-assured, popular with the girls and, in an ultimate act of disloyalty, friends with Rille’s bullies.

The film’s title stems from Rille’s endearing affection for table tennis (in his mind the one true ‘pure’ sport we have left) and his self-appointed position as key master for the bat cupboard at the local youth club.

The boys live with their mother (Ann-Sofie Nurmi), a rotund well-meaning woman who, to the embarrassment of her sons, has a relationship with an inoffensive, dyslexic older man named Gunnar (Frederik Nilsson), himself the owner of a sports shop more befitting of a time when Björn Borg still graced the courts.

Despite their obvious differences, the brothers do occasionally manage to get along, and are equally optimistic about their absent father’s impending visit during the school holidays. Just as you start to think the movie is dragging, a family secret is revealed creating even more tension between the brothers, and the film makes an unexpected (and risky) leap into tragi-drama, thanks to some compelling and superbly-acted scenes in its latter half.

There are a handful of thought-provoking Anti-American references during the movie, some subtle, others more blunt. It also comes as no surprise when we are once again introduced to Swedish Film’s usual suspects: Alcoholism (the boys’ father is a heavy drinker) and Nudity (Rille’s friend Anja sketches semi-pornographic images of well-hung hunks).

Beautifully shot, with exceptional widescreen cinematography by Norwegian Askild Edvardsen, the film’s sterile imagery and Jonsson’s use of bleak blues and greens often evokes another Sundance success, Shane Carruth’s 2004 Sci-Fi thriller ‘Primer’.

Combined with a somewhat traditional yet highly effective score by Martin Willert, some outstanding acting by both Johanssons (who also display great on-screen chemistry), and more than a passing nod to Lasse Hallström’s 1985 award-winning ‘My Life As a Dog’, The King of Ping Pong is a powerful, touching, funny and intelligent film that clearly marks out director Jens Jonsson as a talent to watch.

Rating 4/5

English-language release date: to be confirmed

See also: Review roundup – all the latest major movie releases at a glance.