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Filmmaker Jessica Yu won an Oscar in 1997 for her short documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, memorably joking as she accepted her statuette, "You know you've entered new territory when your outfit costs more then your film." Since then, she’s directed several full-length documentaries, including 2004’s Dakota Fanning-narrated work about outsider artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal and 2007’s Protagonist. Her latest project, Ping Pong Playa, is her narrative feature debut, a comedy set around the world of ping pong. We spoke with Yu and co-writer and star Jimmy Tsai about Asian American cinema of the nineties, the transition from documentaries to features, and the unique fashion sense of the ping pong set.
Does ping pong really speak to everyone?
Jimmy: The universal quality of ping pong is underestimated! Everyone has a ping pong story. This lady came up to us whose
parents had met playing ping pong. Everyone has a warped table with a sagging net folded up in the garage somewhere. We all play it, every culture, every ethnicity.
Jessica: Cue music!
Jimmy, were you any good at ping pong before the movie?
Jessica: At the Pasadena Senior Center, an old lady with false teeth who beat Jimmy became his nemesis. But our coach said he never got someone so good so fast. Jimmy trained for six months, up to six hours a day. He’d play at clubs or against the robot. Jimmy was unnaturally excited about the ball robot. He called it a “she” and I was like, “The ball robot’s a she?”
But is there really a ping pong culture like in the movie, with clubs and shops?
Jessica: Yes. We went to scout ping pong clubs, stalk the ping pong player in the wild. There were some wardrobe choices that we knew if we put in the movie, people would say, “You are so mean.”
Jessica: Jeans that were belted high up the chest with a headband and a red wife beater. Short-shorts folded up.
From the waistband?
Jessica: No, from the bottom, like a homemade Speedo.
Jimmy: Females age 13 to about 50 are missing from ping pong culture. There was one young lady who I saw coming several weeks in a row. Sure enough there was a back story! She was there because she was pregnant and it was a low impact sport, not trying to find her ping pong sugar daddy.
Jimmy, Ping Pong Playa isn’t the first time you’ve played Chris “C-Dub” Wang, is it?
Jimmy: I had played the character in a series of spots for a fictitious clothing company called Venom Sportswear that commented on child endorsements. [Producer Joan Huang and I] had helped Jessica finish In the Realms of the Unreal and we wanted to find another project for her. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to put C-Dub in it?”
Would you act again?
Jimmy: If the opportunity came along, I’d be a fool not to, but the opportunities for Asian American actors are few and far between. I have no delusions of grandeur!
Maybe there will be another Harold and Kumar sequel…
Jimmy: Harold and Kumar is a step in the right direction! TV shows like Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost show that you can have a minority in a lead role and be successful, so let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic. Better Luck Tomorrow is a movie that broke down barriers. It touched on ethnicity, but you could make it with latino, black, white kids. It just happened that they had Asian faces. We were coming from Asian American cinema in the nineties, which was a lot of heavy-handed, melodramatic, identity crisis movies. They were all very serious. We thought we needed to make something comedic that didn’t take itself very seriously. We have to get into thrillers, comedies, horror movies with Asian cinema if we want to evolve. I’m inclined towards the action, so I’d like to bring back the heroic bloodshed genre.
Jessica, you’ve directed some episodes of tv series. Grey’s Anatomy and The West Wing…
Jessica: I think my real training for making a narrative feature was through making tv. You’re always on such a schedule and working with lots of different actors. But I like to work in different genres and areas. I want to do just one project at a time, but I always continue to do commercials and episodic tv. I would like to do another full-length narrative. Jimmy and I are writing another comedy.
And you received a 2008 Media Arts Fellowship from Tribeca for another project?
Jessica: Yes, I’m filming a documentary called Signs of Life, about a school for the deaf in Los Angeles. It’s one of those labor of love projects and it’s nice to have the funding to do it.
Official Ping Pong Playa trailer: