In Hollywood movies, boyhood is a near-perpetual state, lasting well beyond puberty and depicted mostly for the amusement of other overgrown boys (and their indulgent girlfriends). Elsewhere, however, coming-of-age films are apparently still being made. British director Paul Morrison’s Wondrous Oblivion is earnest and didactic, which suits its setting: working-class London in the early ’60s. Chinese filmmaker Ning Hao’s Mongolian Ping Pong is technically a contemporary tale, but it transpires on the border of tradition and modernity—which turns out to be the ideal location for some gentle magic.
Because the latter movie is essentially a one-liner, it’s fitting that it opens with a visual joke. A Chinese-Mongolian family poses for tourist snapshots in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City: first Mom and Dad, then the whole clan—including a lamb—and finally just Grandma. By the time the old woman walks out of the frame, most viewers will have noticed that Beijing is just a one-dimensional backdrop. Then, as Grandma ambles in front of the scene’s far more impressive natural scenery, the big-sky country of Inner Mongolia, the crew rolls down the next photo-illustrated curtain: the Arc de Triomphe.
This sequence, like the movie that follows, is simple, sparing with the dialogue, and affectionately wry. Yet it introduces not only the central character and the sweeping landscape—as expressive as any of the film’s nonprofessional performers, and rendered in images of unglamorized beauty by cinematographer Du Jie—but also some recurring themes. Beijing represents several mysteries, including the modern world and national identity, so it’s a logical development when 7-year-old Bilike (Hurichabilike) and his two friends, Dawa (Dawa) and Erguotou (Geliban) decide that they must make a pilgrimage there.
The journey is set in motion when Bilike goes to fetch water from a meandering stream, only to see a mysterious white sphere float by. He retrieves it, and solicits opinions as to its identity. The boys use their tongues and eyes to determine that it’s not sweet and not an egg. Grandma (Dugema) explains that it’s a “glowing pearl” that belongs to the river gods who live upstream; based on this information, the boys treasure the one-of-a-kind orb. But doubts surface when a traveling film projectionist shows a movie that includes a scene with a golf ball. After the show, the boys ask “Uncle Film” if that’s what their discovery is. No, he says, it’s a pingpong ball. The kids don’t know what that means, but Uncle Film’s tone is so dismissive that Bilike throws the thing down a hole.
The boys and their families live in a world that has been infiltrated by technology but not conquered by it. While Bilike and Dawa ride horses, Erguotou gets around on a motorbike. Traveling hucksters bring in various “American” inventions—coffee, an electric razor—to trade for sheep, or simply to impress Bilike’s pretty older sister, Wurina (Wurina). Television has arrived in the small yurt settlement, but it doesn’t work very well. So the boys can hear but not see the broadcast of a table-tennis match during which the announcer refers to a pingpong ball as “the national ball.” Suddenly, Bilike’s find is important again and must be retrieved. That’s when the kids decide to take it to Beijing, in a trip across the Gobi Desert that, characteristically for this small-scale film, turns out to be less than epic. Eventually, Bilike finds enlightenment much closer at hand—in the nearest town. (Watch for the photo crew, now setting up a steppes background for its urban clientele.) The boy’s final discovery is so startling, however, that the director can’t even show it: The film opens with a visual gag but closes with an auditory one.
Art-house veterans with longish memories will recognize Mongolian Ping Pong’s premise as nearly identical to that of 1980’s The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which a Botswana Bushman is mystified by an empty Coke bottle. That film, however, took a slapstick approach that flirted with outright racism: Funny animals and clueless natives did silly stunts for the amusement of white bystanders. There’s no such condescension in this movie, whose script is credited to Ning, Xing Aina, and Gao Jianguo, but which displays the input of—and respect for—its cast. Mongolian Ping Pong may just be a series of small, genial jokes, but its naturalness is as big a marvel as its vast grasslands and cloudscapes.
A rather more predictable boy-meets-ball tale, Wondrous Oblivion is a little glib about the transformative power of sports—in this case, cricket—but clear-eyed about racial and ethnic conflicts. The Wisemans, Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe, have been tentatively accepted on their block of modest terraced houses. There are some tensions between brusque, Polish-born Victor (Stanley Townsend) and his more playful German-born wife, Ruth (Emily Woof), who seems a little young for him. But their 11-year-old son, David (Sam Smith), faces his major challenges not at home but at his upscale private school: He loves cricket but can’t use this enthusiasm to win over his classmates because he’s hopeless at the game. Instead, he fantasizes about the players on the cards he collects—which, in the film’s cutesiest touch, come to life for his eyes only.
David’s position in the world changes dramatically when the Wisemans get new next-door neighbors, the Samuelses, who are from Jamaica. To David’s delight, Dennis Samuels (Delroy Lindo) sets up a cricket pitch in his postage-stamp backyard, where he coaches his daughter Judy (Leonie Elliott). David and Judy are about the same age, and soon Dennis has invited the boy over to play. For David, the results are spectacular: His skills burgeon, and he gets a place on the school team. The Wisemans, however, pay a price for consorting with their darker-skinned neighbors, whose arrival on the block is a local scandal. Then David, thrilled that he’s now accepted by his schoolmates, panics under pressure and snubs Judy. Meanwhile, Dennis and Ruth are getting a little too friendly.
This is the second feature from writer-director Morrison, whose Solomon and Gaenor observed a disastrous romance between Jew and gentile in early-20th-century Wales. As he did in that movie, the filmmaker musters convincing performances and vivid local color and shows a deep understanding of conflicted families. With its pre-adolescent protagonist and easy ethnic-tolerance moral, however, Wondrous Oblivion is hardly the grown-up inquest into cross-cultural misunderstanding that Morrison’s previous movie was. Solomon, Gaenor, and their respective communities were all distrustful and even duplicitous, and their travails owed as much to their own flaws as to the intolerance of the society around them. The Wisemans and the Samuelses are simpler and, rather blandly, essentially blameless. They may not always do the right thing, but the film suggests that their errors are forced on them by small-minded postwar London.
Made in 2002 and previously shown at the 2004 Washington Jewish Film Festival, Wondrous Oblivion is making its U.S. theatrical debut at the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase, D.C. The film deserves a bigger rollout than it’s getting, if only for its cogent period imagery, which mixes archival footage with Solomon and Gaenor cinematographer Nina Kellgren’s shadowy interiors, and Lindo’s charismatic performance. Yet the film’s evocation of ’60s Britain is perhaps too successful: Despite moments of humor and rage whose implications are universal, it seems overly comfortable with its distance, as if to say that these sort of conflicts could have happened only long ago, in a Europe where sports had yet to banish parochialism.CP