While it claims to be a comedy about ping-pong, “Balls of Fury” is really a movie about frustrated love between the East and the West. At a time when Chinese and American relations are rising rapidly in importance, “Balls” sublimates the West’s fear-fascination of China in a slew of guilty, self-aware stereotypes. It is not a very funny film, lacking both originality and memorable lines, but it is fascinating when seen as the product of a culture afraid of its new, 1.3 billion-person boogeyman.
Directed by Ben Garant (co-creator of the television series “Reno 911”), the plot of “Balls of Fury” centers around an unsanctioned, underground ping-pong tournament run by a mysterious arms dealer known only as Feng. Feng is played by Christopher Walken, a serious actor whose schtick in comedies consists mainly of spoofing himself (see also, Samuel L. Jackson), and who appears in this film in a sort of implied yellowface, playing the role of an Asian man of ambiguous nationality. Apparently the FBI wants nothing more than to catch Feng, and so they enlist the help of Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), a fallen ping-pong champion who now does shows in Nevada casinos and wears a Def Leppard T-shirt (why does Def Leppard fandom always signify total inadequacy in Hollywood mythology? Recall “Joe Dirt”). Under the guidance of an Asian Ping-Pong master, Daytona whips himself into shape, wins a spot in Feng’s tournament and then proceeds to help an FBI agent (George Lopez) bring Feng down. The plot is a tired mix of “Enter the Dragon” and “Rocky” and hurries along to its conclusion at a frantic pace, probably aware that most of its audience members won’t have a very long attention span, as most of them will be children.
More than anything else, fear of Asia pervades the film, balanced awkwardly with an equal love of Asia. Asia, as symbolized by Feng and his henchmen, is powerful, mysterious and heartless. Asia, as symbolized by Daytona’s gorgeous sidekick Maggie (model-actress Maggie Q), is beautiful, helpful and sex-crazed. Asia, and not China or Japan or Korea, because characters’ nationalities are never specified in “Balls of Fury”: Judging by his name, Feng would appear to be Chinese, but he wears a kimono and is carried around by Polynesian strongmen. The ambiguity also goes for his organization, which has a Chairman Mao look-alike on its advisory board but is transported by the “Haiku Company.” No, “Balls” only gives its audience one giant meta-Asia, which threatens to destroy the world (when Feng threatens to self-destruct the Ping-Pong tournament) while also offering its salvation (when Maggie saves Daytona at the film’s end).
Running counterpoint to this muddle of East-West love-hate contradictions is a clear, single-minded obsession with Daytona’s balls, both actual and metaphorical. Daytona’s penis is continually assaulted throughout the film (kicked and punched, boxed and squished), but it is also exalted, as when he awes spectators by using his phallic paddle to masterfully bounce Ping-Pong balls off of the supple thighs, hips and breasts of a struggling Maggie. The attraction of Daytona’s penis appears to be total; at one point early in the film Maggie inexplicably jumps it, almost in spite of herself, and towards the end Daytona is pursued by a gaggle of half-naked male sex-slaves. Still, despite his member’s universal charisma, one admirer stands above the rest: A 12-year-old Chinese Ping-Pong extraordinaire who is referred to only as “The Dragon.” It is “The Dragon” who brings “Balls of Fury” to a thematic close, giving Daytona a flower to congratulate him on his victories, then kicking his crotch. The film ends shortly thereafter, and the audience is left to ponder two questions: What made me want to see this movie, which would be best enjoyed by people who are still too young to have heard of Freud? And will the People’s Republic of China actually give me a flower, and then kick my crotch? They are both important questions.