There’s a sweet charm to Leong Po Chih’s 1986 mystery-comedy Ping Pong, set in and around the restaurant businesses of London’s Chinatown, now rereleased. It was produced by Film Four, who two years later brought out Mike Newell’s comparably set Soursweet, based on the Timothy Mo novel, although that is more serious. Ping Pong is eminently likable, though for me there is something perhaps a little soft-edged and carefully paced which dampens the energy a bit. It is a cheerfully far-fetched caper that could have taken some influence from the Alistair Sim classic Laughter in Paradise, and there’s sharp comment on the racism and enforced invisibility for Chinese communities in Britain, then as now.
Lucy Sheen made her acting debut here as Elaine, a law student who is tasked by the family of Mr Wong, a recently deceased Chinatown restaurateur, with handling his will, which has many eccentric provisions almost designed to promote arguments but also self-examination among the beneficiaries. He divides his restaurant and various assets among the grownup children, in-laws and friends on condition that they continue to run everything in the proper, traditional Chinese way, and that they refrain from their various vices of drinking and gambling. Elaine realises that it might somehow be her job to enforce these strictures. Worryingly, he has also provided for a mysterious Englishwoman called Sarah Lee, whom no one knows anything about but with whom Mr Wong may have had a secret relationship.
Most dismayingly, he wants his body to be returned to his home village in China, which will require a relative to accompany the coffin on the plane, and the family members must decide among themselves who this is to be. David Yip plays eldest son Mike, a heartless businessman who wants to build a seven-storey modern establishment on the site of his dad’s old place. Ric Young is younger brother Alan, a businessman married to an Englishwoman; Robert Lee is Wong’s old friend Mr Chen, an anglophile and Arsenal supporter who never had Wong’s success. As for Elaine, desperately trying to get these people to sign the relevant papers, she feels knocked back and forth between them like a ping pong ball, and knocked back and forth between Chinese and British identities in the same way.
There’s some interesting scenes of Chinatown and Soho from the 1980s, particularly its secret rooftop world, over which today’s members’ clubs now have views. And there are some nice dialogue exchanges: “When did you last see your father?” – “When did you last see your dentist?” A haughty government official patronisingly asks Elaine where she learned such excellent English: “The same place you did,” replies Elaine politely – ie, she was born in the UK. The film’s wayward whimsy carries it along.