Wednesday 13thSeptember 01:05 the British feature film Ping Pong directed by Po Ch’ih Leong got its second UK airing on national TV via Film4, after over thirty-seven years!
I have never enjoyed watching myself on screen. Sounds like a contradiction for an actor, but it’s something I have learnt to do. For professional reasons, principally how can you get better at your craft if you don’t watch you’ve done? How do you learn if you can’t study yourself and criticise yourself, to evolve and move forwards?
In the UK September is ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) history month.
Ping Pong was chosen to be screened only for the second in the country of its origin and will be streamed for the remainder of the month.
I have very mixed emotions about this. As an actor it’s great when work that you’ve been involved in is broadcast. People get to see the work and isn’t that one of the main reasons we do this? But it’s been over thirty years since Ping Pong was released back in 1986. And then after a short Westend release at The Curzon cinema and only one UK TV screening it was then promptly forgotten. Buried in the film archives and all but erased from British cinematic history. Why, that is truly a sixty-four-million-dollar question – and then some. And not a question for this article.
I will say this from my perspective and now experience, there was not the same will, enthusiasm or understanding of either the film, the themes centred in the film or the people it portrayed in the film. It was in some senses a cinematic tick box for those in charge. That’s my opinion
The mere fact of knowing that new (and old) audiences will once again have the opportunity to see Po Ch’ih’s work makes me smile. The prospect of more people being able enjoy the work and labour of the creatives behind the camera, to see and hear the voices of the actors, some who are sadly no longer with us; and the wonderful memories, the laughter, the nerves, the overall excitement and buzz of making a film – for me my first. Then there were the hopes and expectations of many riding on my very young and exceedingly green shoulders; much of which until recent years, have never been closed to being realised.
A strong principle cast of eight British East and Southeast Asian (BESEA) actors the main protagonist not only a BESEA but a female! The narrative one that was completely “British.”
Focusing on the children of Chinese immigrants, their brave new worlds and their struggles with identity, culture and belonging. A tale that took the characters beyond the migrant/immigrant narrative and beyond that was in 1985 (when we shot the film).
How many other British features have been made centring a BESEA narrative similar to Ping Pong on the big screen like that since 1986?
Sour Sweet an adaptation of Timothy Mo’s novel came along on 1988 but again this is a narrative about ESEA characters as migrants, sojourners not as British citizens.
Peggy Su! 1997 another film focused on the migrant narrative coping with change in the 60s.
2014 Lilting (a favourite of mine) directed by Hong Khaou. As beautiful as the film is it isn’t so much about being British East and Southeast Asian as it is about loss, love and being able to communicate - maybe I’m wrong.
Fast forward to 2019 and again a work from Hong Khaou Monsoonyes the central character Kit is a BESEA but the film isn’t about the condition of being a BESEA. It’s about going back this country of birth, reconnecting with lost and buried memories. And the film’s important action takes place in Vietnam. Don’t get me wrong I really enjoyed the film, I’m a big fan or Hong Khaou’s work. But for me personally and professionally where are the films, the TV shows that centre BESEAs and BESEA narratives, historical or contemporary, centre screen.
Where are the films and TV shows that show cross generational BESEAS and protagonists on screen. That openly talk about the challenges, the lived experiences of being a British East and Southeast Asian living, working struggling, succeeding, failing, even dying in the UK as a British citizen?
As a good friend and colleague of mine asks, ‘when was the last time you saw a BESEA (male, female or otherwise) kiss romantically on screen? It particularly hits home when it comes to male BESEAs because more often than not the representation of a male BESEA on screen in the UK is a brute or an emasculated. They are not the love or even the lust interest. Whilst female BESEAs continue to be the love and lust interest of the (usually not always) the white male protagonist.
Sour grapes, a chip on my shoulder? Meh. The film had mixed reviews when released and oat the film festivals. When it hit Venice, it was but was in some ways and better understood and received by both audiences and critics in central Europe than in its own country of origin. If I remember the reviews correctly from the La Figaro and Le Monde. One year on 1987 I’ll take Kevin Thomas’ of the Los Angeles Times Sheen's performance was its "strongest asset". He described the film as a "quest for identity" for Anglo-Chinese torn between integrating with British culture and the fight in trying not to lose their cultural heritage. Along with Time Out “It’s about Elaine Choi (Sheen excellent) And a comment from the great British film critic Alexander Walker, wanting to know why Ping Pong had not received the same production support as My Beautiful Laundrette had. Released just one year before Ping Pong.
For me the best thing about seeing Ping Pong on British TV screens is just that. Something that should have happened back in 1986 when it was first released. A film which is not perfect by any means, but none the less should have done far better than it did and could have done so. Had there been the will from those in positions of power to elevate and promote the work. Ping Pong needed the same amount of faith and belief that the cast, crew and creatives had in the film.
Ping Pong was made, remains in spite of being shelved for almost thirty years. The themes, the challenges both on and off screen for BESEA creatives still remain. In some areas there has been improvement. In other areas we remain at a stubborn plateau of fixed ideals, in appropriate and inaccurate perceptions and representations of BESEAS UK screens with no real investment in the artist and creatives who can envisage, create and produce the nuanced and diverse alternative British works that we as a now thriving multicultural, polyethnic and multifaith society need to see full represented and recreated on TV, Cinema and on Stage.
I was told whilst on set making Ping Pong by one of the older British-Chinese actors Barbara Ewing that I was the hope, their hope, her hope for the next generations.
Has the industry fulfilled that hope? I’d have to say no and that= saddens me greatly, but angers me even more.
But at least Ping Pong remains and has been made available (for a limited time) to new audiences.