Teenage table tennis players aim for Olympics in "Top Spin"
"This is the story about the quest to become an Olympian, all before finishing high school," a text card informs viewers at the beginning of "Top Spin", a documentary directed by Mina T. Son and Sara Newens. The film primarily follows three American teenagers - Ariel Hsing, Michael Landers and Lily Zhang - as they compete for a prized spot on the United States' table tennis team at the 2012 London Olympics. While fighting for their dreams at tournaments across the globe, the trio also navigates schoolwork, familial relationships and relentless training.
Co-directors Son and Newens initially conceived the documentary while studying together at Stanford's M.F.A. Film and Video Program. "Someone brought up a New York Times article about the Bay Area being this hotbed area of young table tennis talents," Son said during a February phone interview. "We're both huge sports fans. Not really having a command of what professional table tennis looked like, I think we were both intrigued ... We knew that all three kids were going to try to make it to the Olympics."
The filmmakers certainly had their work cut out for them. In addition to profiling the athletes involved, they had to explain the rules and techniques, as well as demonstrate the sport's unique intensity.
The trailer for the film describes table tennis as "martial arts and boxing combined with chess."
"We never played competitively [prior to the film]," Son said. "We were like so many other Americans who play with friends and family - you see a table and you pick up a paddle and you think you're really good. But the first practice that we saw, we realized these athletes were competing at just a whole different level."
But "Top Spin"'s value is detailed in the earnest, articulate and dedicated athletes.
"There's always those times when it's really close, and you're thinking to yourself: 'Can I do this? Am I willing to be aggressive this time?'" Hsing explains in one tense moment in the film. "You have to train yourself to be able to take that chance, as nervous as you may be. It's something you have to be able to overcome."
Co-director Newens said the players' compelling personalities ultimately forced the filmmakers to move from a 12-minute short to a full-length feature. "It was very interesting that Ariel and Lily often had to compete against each other, but they were also teammates," she said. "Through exploring their relationship, you saw another layer in the story, which is that they were teenagers. They had to balance all the typical parts of being an adolescent with competing as an elite athlete."
The tenacity of the ambitious young athletes is on display, but 'Top Spin' also explores America's tenuous relationship with table tennis. "It is evolving," professional table tennis player Barney Reed says during the film. "Table tennis is coming out of the basements and out of the garages to more mainstream USA."
What is unique to table tennis in the U.S., Son learned, is the drive and passion the athletes have for the sport.
"Because at the end of your athletic career, there really isn't this possibility for fame and fortune, like in a lot of other sports."
Reactions to the film have been universally positive. After a screening at Long Island's Gold Coast International Film Festival in November, Festival Director Caroline Sorokoff discussed its appeal.
"To me, ping pong is pretty popular among a certain age of people. But they've never seen table tennis at the professional level," Sorokoff said, explaining that her children enjoy playing the game. "Most people, we mention it to them, and we say: 'There's a movie about ping pong, people competing for the Olympics.' And they say: 'There's table tennis at the Olympics?' So I think a film like this first gets people to realize what this sport is all about, and how far you can go with it."
Thirteen-year-old table tennis player Max Fineman attended the screening and said he enjoyed the film, but couldn't imagine playing at the Olympic level.
"If I worked hard enough, maybe, but probably not," he laughed, but added with a smile: "I can't wait to be watching it [at Rio 2016]."
"Top Spin" is currently available on iTunes, and will stream on Netflix beginning June 15th.