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Hey babies, we were so overjoyed to have an exclusive chat with the director and star of the hilarious new comedy Ping Pong Playa, Jessica Yu and Jimmy Tsai. Dig up the fun as we discuss everything from Yao Ming and Spam Lite to Zilla Vanilla and witness the creation of a new comedy franchise!

 

Ping Pong Playa

 

Jessica Yu & Jimmy Tsai

 

Mighty Ganesha: I knew Ping Pong Playa was a comedy, but I didn’t expect to laugh so hard from the word go. Jessica, coming from the world of heavy, Oscar-winning documentaries, how did you manage to make such a funny film?

Jessica Yu:  Well, the funny thing is, I guess maybe it seems like a little less of a departure for me, just because my work’s actually pretty eclectic, but in my personal projects, yeah it’s been like this heavy documentary stuff. But I think I’ve always wanted to make an Asian-American themed narrative and when this opportunity came up it made perfect sense. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve been dying to do this my whole life I just didn’t know it!” We were talking about how Jimmy and I have been to a lot of Asian American film festivals over the years, and there’s been a lot of good work there, but tends to be pretty heavy and so I think we both felt there was a real need for superficial comedy in the Asian American oeuvre. I think we’re at a place where we can poke a little more fun at ourselves and have an obnoxious main character is a little bit of change, but I think that’s something that speaks probably more to sensibilities and growing up as Asian-Americans.

 

MG: There’s a big distinction in this being a film about Asian-Americans that’s interesting to see, because it captures the dichotomy of being saturated with American pop culture and keeping a tie to traditions back in China. The scene with C-dub’s father waking him up cooking Spam in a wok and banging pans and singing Chinese opera is a great example.

JY:  That’s my dad! Oh My God!

 

MG: C-dub is made of twenty million bits of pop culture, like any young American.

JY:  That’s right! I remember somebody had a very complicated question about what we were trying to say about the African-American experience. I said, “You know what, he’s a kid who grew up with what’s on TV.”

 

MG: The soundtrack plays a strong role. I know I heard a cover of I Wish by Skee-Lo.

JY:  Yes, yes! It was funny because neither of us had actually really …I mean, I know it’s an old school song, but for some reason we had a gap in our listening and we didn’t know that song and then Jimmy’s like, “This is my life!” “These lyrics speak about me.”

Jimmy Tsai:  It was weird, yeah, cos I’m from Houston and for some reason I never heard that song growing up, but then our music supervisor had put together this compilation of songs he thought might interest us.

JY: Yeah, we had this great music supervisor, Shaun Young. But what was great was having some songs we knew we wanted to use and then being able to shoot stuff for the montages and some Asian-American performers on there. We have Far East Movement and Chops from Philly who’s awesome. And these guys wrote songs for us, too which is also amazing.

 

MG: Now the question the world is waiting for, where did C-dub come from?

JT: C-dub… I had initially played this character for this website Venomsportswear.com, but you know the whole idea of it is, kind of I guess a slight exaggeration of my personality. Well, here let me tell you one of my theories, my theory is that - you know that there hasn’t been an Asian-American basketball player in the NBA, yet? There are Chinese players like Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi and Yi Jianlian, but they actually come from China, they’re like imported, right? But see my whole theory is that there probably actually was an Asian-American kid good enough to make it in the NBA; he had the genetics and the natural ability, but instead of encouraging and cultivating his natural physical talents, his parents spent time on forcing him to play the piano, violin, studying for his SATs, so he never really was able to achieve his goal in life.

JY: {Stage whisper} Jimmy was in boys’ choir!

{All laugh}

JT: That’s the truth. But that’s the idea, there’s this kid who’s a little bit bitter cos he never really got his chance and he wants to make sure that other kids don’t follow in his footsteps as far as not really going after what you really want. 

JY:  I’m just joking about his personality being very close to that, because Jimmy, when I first met him was in his role as production accountant for Cherry Sky Films and he was very polite and nice, very professional, and then seeing this other side of him was really just so funny. When I first saw those spots, I didn’t know that it was Jimmy cos his character just came across so differently, so that was very eye-opening. But then the more you know Jimmy, you know that’s the other side.

JT: The other thing that we really talked about early on, too, was that we wanted to keep that character realistic because we’ve seen other filmmakers try to portray this kind of character and the tendency is to take it way over the top, you know? Like gold teeth, gold chain-wearing, like pants sagging all the way down to the ankles. I mean, we all know people like that, some of my friends are like that and that’s not how they really are, they don’t go around with all this bling – its ridiculous. So we wanted to definitely keep it grounded and keep a level of realism as far as that character was concerned.

 

MG: Still, there’s all these great moments of abject humiliation, like the little green bike.

JY:  Oh my God, the bike! And the funny thing was I was like, “We gotta get this little bike, and Jimmy, you’re going to have to learn how to ride one,” and he was like, “Oh, I know how to ride one.” But there was all this stuff, like Jimmy had to train with all those wrestling games and stuff and the video games he was in hard training for that.

JT:  I put in a lot of sacrifice.

 

MG: That’s hard work.

JT: If you got back and watch that scene you’ll see that the character is called C4, cos he’s explosive! So I had to go into the video game and I had to customise this character. I sacrificed a lot of my personal time to make sure that it was as authentic as possible.

 

MG: C-dub already had a series of short films before this film was made and I wondered what it was like to collaborate on this character that Jimmy created and that is clearly bits of his own personality that he may not bring out in the light too much. What was it like to get C-dub ready for his feature film close-up?

JY: Actually, it was really easy, I would say. 

JT: I agree.

JY:  I think the main thing is that we agreed that what was wonderful about having that character – I mean, I had the same reaction to those spots – is that that was our humour. That was where we wanted the reality grounded. So as we were working if there was any joke that seemed like, “Oh is this too broad?” measuring it against the reality of that character was. So, I think it worked really easily probably because we kept C-dub as close to who he is and then just kind of built everything around it. I’d say probably the work division was more like whenever it was a C-dub scene I was like, “That line, just translate it into C-dub speak!” It was very smooth.

JT:  Yeah and like Jessica said because we were working from a foundation that we both already knew, and that was already sort of set. So form there it was just figuring out the story. There was a lot of stuff that’s actually taken from both our lives.

JY: Yeah, my dad really does sing Chinese opera and he would fry the Spam. My parents, I remember talking to them once a few years ago, they were so excited. I said, “What’s going on?” They said, “Spam Lite!” They were so excited because Spam is pretty salty and everybody’s gotta watch their sodium and that rocked their world.

 

MG: One of the scenes that I wondered came from wither of your childhoods, is the one where the mothers are all talking about their children and competing with each other for the most successful child. Did either of your mothers battle it out with other moms for maternal superiority?

JY:  I’ve gotten comments about that where people were like, “Oh my God, it’s so like that.” My mom and her friends aren’t like that, I think she’s got a pretty mixed group of friends, but I think maybe a slightly older generation might think that’s very familiar.

JT:  Yeah, its true there’s these pockets of ladies that are out there. It’s funny, too, because that’s a typical thing that I think is true in a lot of places, where the parents, when they’re talking to each other they’re always trying to one-up each other with their kids, but them when they actually talk to their kids, they’re like, “Oh, you gotta do better,” or “You gotta try harder,” that kind of thing, That’s such a Chinese thing.

JY:  And it’s probably not just Chinese, but you don’t praise your kids in front of your kids.

 

MG: That’s deep. 

{All laugh}

MG: But on the subject of not praising the kids, the flip side of that coin and one of the things I thought was very sweet about the film is the fact that C-dub’s mentor when he decides to play ping pong is his father. His father clearly loves his son and believes in him despite C-dub being a lazy screw-up. I wondered how important that was for you to put in? You don’t see that kind of relationship too often generally in films, not just Asian ones.

JY:  You know, that’s a really interesting point because I think a lot of times in movies it’s always the father substitute that they’re playing with. There are two things, one is that we wanted to make this father character more realistic and multi-dimensional, and the second thing is a lot of times especially I’d say in some of the Asian-American films that we’ve seen, the father is almost like Jimmy says, almost like a caricature of the Asian-American father, being so remote, so difficult to please, so rigid. We want our father to be more … you know, he’s got a sense of humour and he’s not the one holding his son down, his son is not actually doing anything.  So I think that was part of it, too, to give that character some movement, they have to kind of meet each other halfway, so that little dance was definitely very planned.

JT:  The father is definitely more true to life than other fathers we’ve seen and you know that was one of the things Jessica and I would always notice is that our father were never like the portrayals of these scary {guys}. You know, they’re actually kind of goofy.

JY: {Laughs} They’ll pull out the “Dad” card when they want to, but they have a sense of humour.

JT:  Exactly, they’re not automatons. And so that was kind of easy in that sense, because that’s what we kind of grew up with too.

 

MG: I also enjoyed the older brother getting the mick taken out of him because he’s everything the parents want him to be, but he’s got all these ticks like his “Eight Commandments” for women.

{Both laugh}

JY:  I gotta just mention, Jimmy’s list! Everyone would tease him that he had this list of requirements and I was like, “We gotta stick that in there somewhere.” The funny thing about Michael as the brother character is that yeah, we wanted him to be perceived as the Golden Child, but obviously he’s not perfect as he’s still single and in the parents’ eyes that’s a problem, but also the parents have a little soft spot for C-dub. The other thing dynamically we wanted to capture, I mean, Jimmy’s got a brother, too, is that when they start arguing, Michael’s always trying to be the responsible adult and C-dub just drags him down to his level.

 

MG: Talking about dragging people down to other’s levels, the kids…

{Both laugh}

MG:  I don’t know, you’re kind of messing with the minds of these minors here.

JT: I have to liberate them!

 

MG: I thought the kids were great and I wondered where you found them and what they were like to work with.

JY: It was actually scary when we were casting, cos even though there’s more Asians in the entertainment industry, there’s not a grand pool of kids and we didn’t have any kids till I don’t know how far into prep. Then all three kids came in on one day. And two of them, Javin Reid, who plays Prabakar, he works a lot; he was on Heroes and stuff. And then Andrew Vo who plays Felix, he’s like George Burns reincarnated in this little boy. He’s such a character, as soon as he came in we were like “Okay, this is Felix,” and he’s hilarious. And Kevin {Chung} who plays William, he’s newer but really interesting, he always would come up with a little bit of business to do. I think with kids a lot of times -you know, we didn’t do a lot of takes with them; we really didn’t rehearse anything, mainly because I always wanna see what happens in the first take. As long as everyone knows their lines something will happen. So with kids, you try to keep it spontaneous, keep the day moving along, nut it was interesting to see someone like Kevin always try to think of a little something to do at the end of each take and every take would be a little different. It was nice to see that he was experimenting.

 

MG: So how does a production accountant become a film star?

JT: Well, I don’t know if I’m a film star, yet, that’s like Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks. Initially, when we did the spots for the website, Joan {Huang} was one of producers of the film and she’s a producer of the Venom Sportswear stuff and we actually had cast for that role. When I was looking for someone to play that role I wanted to find someone just for this role, but someone I could use or the future. Not to put myself up on this level, but a Chow Yun-fat to my John Woo, kinda thing, or DeNiro and Scorsese. The other thing was if I don’t find that guy, then I’ll do it myself as a backup. It was also that Joan and I had to be unanimous, we’ll both agree that it’s that guy. But then Joan kinda liked one guy better, I liked another guy better and then it’s obviously not either of them, so, okay, screw it, I’ll just do it myself. It ended up being much more economical too, because those initial spots have a four-year-old little kid in them, so instead of having to explain to both the kid and someone else what’s going to happen I just did it with him and it ended up being really quick and easy and turned out well.

There was a whole conversation that came up when we were working on the script … {to Jessica} I’ll let you tell it.

JY: Well, when we all agreed on the concept and we were working on the script, it was probably about a month later we had been working on a pretty good system basis, and I said to Jimmy, “I don’t want you to worry about any rewriting once we start shooting,” and Jimmy was like, “Well, why?” and I said, “Because you’re going to be in every scene,” and he said “What? Um, you better talk to Joan about that.”  He had no idea that I’d been thinking that he would play it and I don’t think Joan did either, so then I had to have a conversation with Joan. Jimmy was up for it and it was so obvious, of course, it has to be, I mean, he is C-dub. But it was funny how it took a little bit of convincing because everyone assumed it would be cast.

 

MG: Jimmy, I have to ask about the actual ping pong training. How long were you in training before they got you in front of the camera?

JT:  I trained for six months before the shoot and I trained pretty seriously. Our coach/consultants were a husband and wife team, the wife was an Olympic Hall of Famer, so I trained with them and I played anywhere from an hour to six hours every day for six months.

JY:  He had the ball robot in his garage. He was so excited about the ball robot.

JT:  Cos it’s cool!

JY:  But I have to say that the first day that we went to do a little reconnaissance to see what was out there table tennis-wise, we went to Pasadena Senior Center, which is the closest place. There were some really old people playing including this one very, very old lady who kept playing with her false teeth while she played, and Jimmy’s like, “I could take these guys.” And that first day, he played for seven hours and this little old lady, she was kicking his butt, so it was very intense motivation.

 

MG: How many hours of shooting during the tournament scene were you actually going back and forth?

JY: Well, Jimmy’s stuff - his motto was, “No CGI for Jimmy!” – He did all his ping pong stuff.

 

MG: There was Balls of Fury from last year and an adorable Japanese film called Ping Pong from 2004, what is the fascination with making table tennis tournaments into great drama?

JY:  Joan Huang, it was really her idea, and I think mainly she felt there’s something a little bit funny about it, just even the sound of it, but at the same time its an Olympic sport and everyone’s had some experience with it, whether it’s the warped table in your garage that you take out for one summer and then you never play again. So everyone sort of knows what its about and you can play it from the time you’re a kid till when your false teeth keep coming out. Also, it was the kind of thing that C-dub could never imagine wanting to be good at. How are you gonna actually impress a girl? And then the shorts…

 

MG: Yes, we must discuss the short-shorts!

JT:  Oh, man…

JY:  The Shorts! We knew that we needed some short shorts, and our wardrobe person found these, and I was like, “They’re great, but they need to be shorter!” So we actually took the brim up, and I was like, “Jimmy, will you still wear these?’

JT:  We were this close between PG-13 and an R! I wore a pair of compression shorts underneath to keep things child-friendly.

JY:  My dad, he likes playing basketball, but when I look at pictures of him in the summers when I was in junior high, he was in short shorts. It’s like a generational thing, but also I could see so many Asian-American dads would not think twice about it. ‘Oh these are shorts – freedom of movement!’

This is the thing about the ping pong world, people might think that we’re making fun of the table tennis world, but if you visit some serious clubs you will see an array of sartorial choices that we couldn’t have … we didn’t do where we could’ve gone. I will say table tennis people are the nicest people in the world, they were really awesome, but there are some very interesting clothing choices.

 

MG:  So how much time did you spend at the table tennis clubs?

JY:  I only went to a couple. Jimmy was there all the time.

JT:  We spent the first few months together taking a look and then I trained there pretty regularly. It’s funny the ping pong clubs, you’ll notice a very, very specific demographic missing from all the table tennis clubs and that is female thirteen through forty-five.

{All laugh}

JY:  You know in the movie Smith Cho plays Jennifer, how everyone always asks her if she wants to learn ping pong? So I went to like two club and both times somebody goes, “So, do you play?”

 

MG:  Tell us about the shoot, how long was it, and what kind of budget were you working with? Also, you have a couple of Queer as Folk guys in there? How did that happen?

JY:  Oh my God, the Queer as Folk guys, we love them so much. It was a twenty-day shoot, not a very big budget. As out producer Anne {Clements}, says, it was the craft service budget of that other ping pong movie. I think the people who signed on they really got it, they really liked the script. We had a great group of people; really, we had a fun shoot which is weird.

JT:  The Queer as Folk guys, Peter {Paige} and Scott {Lowell}, they’re just so awesome. In real life, too, they’re just so much fun to work with and such great people.

JY:  Scott’s ad-libbing; a couple of things that he said are just the funniest things.

JT:  Scott’s ad-libbing we’d love to take credit for, but unfortunately we can’t.

 

MG: Are there plans to show the film internationally?

JY:  I’m sure there will be yeah. We’re focused on the domestic release, but we do now have an international sales rep, and I’m certain in Asia…

 

MG:  I’m interested to see how its going to be accepted in Asia, because it’s such an American story, C-dub is such a product of his American upbringing.

JT:  I think we tried to hedge our bets, too, s far as the international value of it, because it is a comedy, its sports, and you don’t necessarily have to grow up in this culture to understand all of the humour in the movie. Of course, there’s some stuff that’s sort of culturally specific. It’ll be interesting because the Olympics will have also been out by then too and table tennis according to what the guys were telling me is the second most popular sport in the world – I don’t know how true that is.

 

MG: Jimmy, you created the Zilla Vanilla boxes for the cereal that C-dub enjoys so much.

JT:  Zilla Vanilla is a fictional creation obvsiouly, but we wanted to put those retro general M9ills boxes in there, you know the monster cereals like Count Chocula  and Franken Berry. There’s the two lesser known ones, which is Fruit Brute, a werewolf. There’s also Yummy Mummy. Initially I tried to track down the retro boxes, I actually called General Mills, but they didn’t have any themselves, so I was like, “Aw, screw it, let’s just invent them ourselves.”  I actually came up with four cereals and then Jessica picked the one she liked the most…

JY: The Asian-themed one.

JT:  They’re all monster-themed and Zilla Vanilla is obviously Godzilla. There’s three other ones that you don’t see in the movie, there’s Grrr-Ape! - Which is like the King Kong grape-flavoured cereal. There’s also Hunch Munch, which is the Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s a coffee-flavoured one. And then, the fourth one is Invisi-Berry, which is the Invisible Man with a bowl of milk!

 

MG: What, is it wrapped up in bandages?

JY: Yeah!

JT:  There’s just a bowl of milk, because the cereal’s…invisible! Get it? Yeah!

 

MG:  I feel General Mills might be calling you for ideas. What is the animation goes with that scene the commercials C-dub’s watching, was that made for the film?

JY:  Actually, that’s one of the producer/animators for The Simpsons, some new shows that they have coming out, and our prop guy was awesome and he was a friend of his, so they let us borrow some clips of what’s coming up.

 

MG:  Well, C-dub is such a fun character I have to ask if there are plans for a sequel?

JY:  I’ve got all plans for C-dub. It’s funny, a friend of mine was like, “You should have something where C-dub’s upset because there’s not more Asian male supermodels. I was thinking if Zoolander didn’t exist, that would be hilarious. I’m going to try to do that, but Jimmy’s not going there.

JT:  I know, cos you two were like “Underwear? You wanna be an underwear model?” I gotta work on my abs first.

{All laugh}

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

July 18th 2008

 

PS: Click here to read our laudatory review of Ping Pong Playa!

Special Blessings to the fabulous Jack Song of David Magdael & Associates for making this chat possible.

 

 

 

 

© 2006-2017 The Diva Review.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos

Exclusive photos by LMD

Film stills courtesy of Cherry Sky Films

 

 

 

 

 

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