Dir: Jens Jonsson. Sweden. 2007. 107 mins.
Growing pains in a cold climate: this formula has reaped handsome dividends for Nordic cinema in the past, most spectacularly for Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog, and more modestly for Dagur Kári's Icelandic art-house hit of 2003 Noi Albinoi. Swedish comedy-drama The King of Ping Pong looks set to follow in their wake: a contender in Rotterdam's Tiger Awards competition, it arrives in Europe fresh from its World Cinema Jury Prize and Cinematography Prize in Sundance.
This highly stylised debut feature from Jens Jensson - whose 2002 short Brother of Mine won a Silver Bear in Berlin - may deter some viewers with its somewhat glacial humour and overall detachment. But dig beneath its frosty surface, and you find a witty, discreetly heart-tugging narrative that speaks the international language of the small-town coming-of-age tale, ensuring substantial niche-mainstream crossover prospects. DVD shelf-life promises longevity, and Jensson's stylistic confidence will find plentiful admirers on the festival circuit.
Set in a small snowbound town in northern Sweden, the film revolves around 16-year-old Rille (Jerry Johansson), an obese, depressive teen who is routinely and half-heartedly bullied by his peers. Rille's main talent in life is table tennis, his self-esteem dependant on his somewhat pompous coaching of a reluctant school ping-pong team.
Rille lives with his slim, confident, better-looking kid brother Erik (Hampus Johansson), tubby hairdresser mother (Nurmi), and several skinny, highly vocal cats. While the boys' macho, charismatic dad (Staykov) is away working as a diver on an oil-rig, Mum's constant companion is Gunnar (Nilsson), a grey middle-aged man who runs the local sports store, and whose constant presence sets Rille worrying about family secrets. Dad's return, with girlfriend in tow, is the catalyst for a family drama tinged with absurdist comedy.
Very much a character piece, the film derives its main emotional charge from Jerry Johansson's performance, all the more eloquent for its outright reticence. As sullenly uncommunicative as an Aki Kaurismäki character, Johansson exudes a likeable vulnerability, and shows a commendable lack of vanity too, lending his physical bulk to the role without Rille ever coming across either a grotesque or a source of pathos. More cartoonish touches of characterisation do emerge occasionally - Nurmi endures particularly unflattering photography - but the generally muted tenor of the comedy ensures that the film's dominant tone is amiable sitcom humanism.
The extreme artifice of the visuals threatens at the start to be an emotional barrier against viewer involvement. Colour co-ordinated to within an inch of its life, the design uses a palette of faded greys, blues and off-whites to evoke the drab small-town interiors: even the local Chinese restaurant seems carved out of ice. The snowy landscape, meanwhile, provides a magnificently expansive backdrop to an otherwise contained drama.
Askild Vik Edvarson's photography, favouring static, exaggeratedly four-square compositions, cloaks the film in a faint haze that recalls the films of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson (Songs From The Sceond Floor, We The Living). Seemingly playing on our expectations of Nordic cinema, the overall look imparts a chill that practically makes you shiver, even in the interiors. The look, and gentle social satire, also bring to mind Norwegian director Bent Hamer's similarly artificed Kitchen Stories.
But beyond the sometimes over-fastidious style, The King of Ping Pong sustains itself on subtle emotional content and gentle character comedy, tempered with occasional sparks of outrageous eccentricity: demure, knitwear-swathed Anya, Rille's closest schoolfriend, proves to have a spectacularly lewd imagination, with a secret talent for producing pencil studies of soft-porn hunks.
An over-extended denouement weakens the film's drive, as increasingly dark psychodrama overtakes the comedy. And the material suffers from a certain over-familiarity: it certainly lacks the quirkier outsider eccentricity of Noi Albinoi. But with its likeable spirit, strong performances and cross-generational appeal, The King of Ping Pong looks like travelling as widely as any recent Swedish contender.
Bob Film Sweden AB
Director of photography
Askild Vik Edvardsen