Shame on you, Jessica Yu, documentary director of such serious and elegant and moving and… important documentaries such as Breathing Lessons, about a writer slowly living and dying in an iron long, In the Realms of the Unreal (POV 2005), about twisted shut-in outsider artist Henry Darger, and Protagonist, linking the lives of four men with the work of Euripides. How dare you release, this past weekend, a fiction film — a slap-sticky comedy, called Ping Pong Playa? One that is sold with a trailer that ends with a white woman from Iowa speaking in a faux-Asian accent, saying, “Me love Ping Pong longtime.”
I jest, of course. There’s been a long history of tension between documentary folks who eke out a miserable living making docs, and those directors who jump the wall and enter the more lucrative world of fiction features. I’ve spoken with the likes of Jeffrey Blitz, who made Spellbound, and then had to suffer some slings and arrows for crossing over to make 2007’s Rocket Science. “I never claimed to be just a documentary filmmaker,” he told me the day Rocket Science hit theaters last year. “I’m a filmmaker.” Even Michael Moore took a shot at fiction with the bomb Canadian Bacon in 1995. And I know Nanette Burstein (American Teen) is talking about her next film being a fiction feature.
And why not? I agree with Blitz — filmmaking is a wide spectrum, and no one proves that better than Werner Herzog, who manages to make both great fiction films (Operation Rescue) as well as non-fiction ones (Grizzly Man). But it’s not an easy task. Sure, even Scorsese has made his share of docs (The Last Waltz being his best, I think), but you can tell he’s just passing through when he dabbles in non-fiction. He’s a fiction filmmaker at heart and in vision.
I’ve spent some time with Yu, and have heard her talk about the need for the doc world to take itself less seriously and to loosen things up a bit. With Ping Pong Playa, she’s doing her part. So I’ll make a plug for Yu’s indie film, which is about a Chinese-American who is roped into the family business, a ping pong school, in something of the Napolean Dynamite vein. And in case you question Yu’s comedic chops, just check out a short doc she made in 1992, that’s all about the funny, called Sour Death Balls.