Deborah Ross

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Ping Pong|Tortoise in Love

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Two films this week, one about oldies who play table tennis at an international level and another that is a love story funded by an Oxfordshire village, whose inhabitants feature as bit-part characters and extras. And I’ll be upfront about it: one is rather good whereas, although I’d have liked to like the other, and said it was sweet and charming, it wasn’t, so I can’t. Either way, at least there isn’t a reboot of a rebooted comic book movie that ‘redefines the genre’ — until everyone realises it does not — in sight. You get what I’m saying? Good. Let’s move on.

Ping Pong is a documentary about the over-80s table tennis world championships. Who knew? I didn’t. But they take place every year and, this year, pensioners from all over the world are heading to the Inner Mongolian city of Hohhot. Directed by Hugh Hartford, and produced by his brother Anson, this is the first release from the newly formed Britdoc organisation and, as far as documentaries go, it is utterly conventional in its structure. It introduces the significant characters, explores their back-stories, all the while cutting to the competition itself. I suppose some would say it was workmanlike, but I think it suits the material, and gives it a calm, understated feel, rather than a shouty, patronising one of the kind that goes: ‘Hey, look, old people do stuff!’

The British representatives are 89-year-old Les D’Arcy, who writes rap and poetry and does weights every day, and 81-year-old Terry Donlon, who is being treated for prostate cancer. ‘I want to keep playing because I don’t want to sit down and I don’t want to die,’ he says. Other competitors include 101-year-old fluffy-haired Australian Dorothy deLow who, when asked why she wants to continue playing, being so old, replies with an indignant, ‘I’m not old!’

There’s Rune from Sweden and China’s Sun, but my favourite, by far, is Lisa Modlich, the 86-year-old former Austrian war bride and Texas resident who is marvellously beady-eyed, wears her hair in a sinister up-do, paints her nails blood red and proves the villain of the piece. ‘She’s so old she can’t move,’ she says, as she watches Dorothy play. She calls another competitor a ‘silly cow’ and, for good measure, tells that competitor’s son why he is fat. ‘It’s because your mother’s breast milk was bad.’ However, we also hear her talk movingly about the Nazis marching into Vienna, and let slip she won the Croix de Guerre for helping to smuggle Jews out of Austria. She is proud of her medal, but is also keen to point out: ‘I didn’t kill anyone, but I did distract a lot of Germans.’

The film’s coda is simple: you are never too old and all that. But, actually, I think what it will do is remind everyone that old people are as interesting and individual as anyone else, and as ruthlessly competitive. The standard of table tennis is rather high. Some of those spins! This could just have easily been called Shit Hot in Hohhot. And why not?  

Now, Tortoise in Love, which is about a shy young gardener’s attempts to woo the Polish au pair up at the big house. The film is set in the Oxfordshire village of Kingston Bagpuize (I know; very Little Britain), whose citizens financed it and appear in it, although they do not take the lead roles. It is written by Guy Browning, who lives in the village and wrote the wonderfully smart ‘How To...’ column in the Guardian for many years, but you wouldn’t know it from this.

That said, I think I could forgive the woeful script (‘There are plenty more fish in the sea’; ‘I don’t want to go out with a fish’) and the woeful characters (dim yokels; nasty bankers) and woeful performances if it weren’t for all the horribly tedious sexism. Women are only interested in snaring a man while the men who have been snared find they have hooked up with controlling dragons. Not so much offensive, as just plain boring. Sorry. I wish I could be kinder, but it’s not in my nature. On a brighter note, though, I’m sure it will go down very well in the village hall every Christmas.

Anyway, both films are showing nationwide until the end of September, but are on tour, so you will have to hunt them down via and A faff, I know, but at least we got through this without any reboots of rebooted comic book franchises. And this is something to be proud of, I think.