Much more so than any movie actually about spiritual discipline, the Chinese film Mongolian Ping Pong (seen at SIFF ’04) could be a meditational object—if, perhaps, it wasn’t a sneaky comedy and, to boot, one of the most breathtaking cinematic records of landscape and sky ever filmed. (To be fair, it may be impossible to shoot the mid-Asian highlands drably.) Du Jie’s HD magic-hour compositions are often impossibly painterly—a simple pan of a brooding plain, sliding from one end of a titanic rainbow to the other, could make any cinematographer’s jaw drop.
The humans in question are far from oppressed by their environment: Director Ning Hao’s action revolves around three 8-ish Little Rascals prowling the grasslands around their families’ encampments on ponies and motorbike, playing, arguing, sneaking beer, getting whupped, and deciphering the strange nature of the Ping-Pong ball they found floating down a stream. (They even quiz the monks nearby, but get no answer.) The West encroaches—the struggle to erect a TV antenna made of scraps and tin plates is never ending—but Ning’s movie eschews story progression for a dozy sense of unaccelerated life that never comes close to patronizing or stereotyping its people. The kids are tough and sweet, the film’s eye is wise, and Mongolia is, here, an endless and soothing otherworld.