Dir: Ning Hao. China.2005. 102mins.

A worthwhile addition tothe yurt-flick genre that has included the likes of Urga, MongolianPing Pong is one of those ethnic features that allows audiences to getinside an alien landscape and culture from the comfort of their own cinemaseat. Beautifully-shot, the film is a paean to the endless Mongolian steppesand the nomadic way of life they foster.

But Mongolian Ping Pongis also infused by the pace of life around these parts - in other words, it'spainfully slow. Still, the harshness of the landscape and the lagging tempo arebalanced by touches of sly humour and the cuteness of the three child actorswho carry the plot, and the ping pong ball.

Slight but graceful, itjoins the recent trend for Central Asian films, like Mountain Patrol or TheCup, whose appeal for "western" audiences lies at least partly in thearmchair travel line. Patient ethno-chic arthouse audiences in Western Europelook to be the best bet for this Berlinale Forum selection, followed perhaps byearly-morning slots on specialist cable and satellite channels.

A delicious opening tableauhas the family of little Bilgee (Hurzbileg) posing in front of what looks likethe Imperial Palace in Beijing - but which turns out to be a cloth backdropused by an itinerant photographer. They then pose for another snap in front of"USA scenery" - which turns out to be the Arc de Triomphe. It's a funny intro,but also a neat way of establishing the extreme cultural and geographicisolation of life on the steppes.

The modern world comesthrough filtered and distorted, like the picture on the TV set that Bilgee'sshepherd father (Yadamnarbuu) is constantly fiddling with. Life centres oncertain familiar objects - horses, sheep, the yurt the family sleep in, the ancientgrandmother's wool spindle, the four-wheel-drive trucks that carry people andmerchandise (including a well-thumbed back copy of Chinese Elle) in andout of this vast but fragile rural universe.

When Bilgee and his twoyoung friends (Geliban and Dawaa) find a ping-pong ball in a creek, they haveno idea what it is, and nobody they ask seems to have much of a clue either.Hearing a TV sports commentator remark that the ping pong ball is "the ball ofthe nation", the three friends set out to return the ball to Beijing - whichthey reckon they can reach before nightfall, on horseback.

Director Ning Hao's previousouting, Incense, was a blackly comic moral tale about the money lust ofNew China, which picked up the Grand Prix at the 2003 Tokyo FILMeX festival. MongolianPing Pong has less satirical bite, its parable about how the land ofGenghis Khan became a picturesque footnote to Chinese history rather diluted bythe film's meandering storyline and its preference for ethnological observationover narrative development.

When it drags, indulgentviewers will turn for sustenance to the lovingly composed photography, its wideangles playing up the great expanse of grassland and sky, and the hauntingsoundtrack which makes ample use of nose flute.

Prod cos: Kunlun Brother Film & TV Productions Ltd, BeijingHOP Culture Co Ltd
Int'l sales:
Bavaria FilmInternational
Exec prods:
Lan Ruilong, Ning Hao
Lu Bin, He Bu
Ning Hao, Xing Aina, GaoJianguos
Du Jie
Jiang Yong
Prod des:
Zhang Xiaobing, YangMin
Lu Jiajia, Wu He
Main cast:
Hurichabilike, Dawa,Geliban, Yadamnarbuu