Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 10.3

"'Top Spin' is one of the best docs I’ve seen in a long while, combining edge-of-your-seat sports excitement with the dramas of childhood, parenting and achievement."

Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 10.3

Volleying with the Top Spin directors

Right after I previewed Top Spin, this year’s table tennis documentary featuring Bay Area native players Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang (and also New Yorker Michael Landers), I wrote to Mina Son, the producer and co-director: “You found my soft spot; you made a grown man lose it numerous times in the course of 80 minutes.  It’s probably as close to being a proud papa that I’ll ever be!”

Top Spin is one of the best docs I’ve seen in a long while, combining edge-of-your-seat sports excitement with the dramas of childhood, parenting and achievement.  The three teens profiled are extraordinarily lovable and world-class talented. I’m not totally sure why I teared up so often during the film—some combination of mudita (joy in another’s happiness) and nachas (the Hebrew word for pride in one’s children’s accomplishments), and some unexpected and inexplicable form of endearment to people I never met before. In any case, this is a film well worth watching and one that you’re sure to remember for years to come.

Director/Producer Mina T. Son and Director/Editor Sara Newens were gracious enough to answer a few questions by email.

—Ravi Chandra

Mina and Sara, thank you for your film! I know you spotted Lily, Ariel and Michael in 2010 when you did a short doc on them for your MFA program at Stanford. How did you first become aware of them and what caught your filmmaker’s eyes?
Mina Son: First off, thank you so much for the kind words! We obviously have a fondness towards our subjects having seen them through their journey, but it really means a lot to hear their stories also resonated with you.

While at Stanford, Sara and I had to co-direct a short documentary together. Someone mentioned a New York Times article about young table tennis talent in the Bay Area and we thought it would make a great short film. Though the short focused only on Ariel, the article actually featured Lily as well, so we met both girls back in 2010 when Ariel was 14 and Lily just 13. They had braces and were so young… it’s mind boggling to see them as young women now. While making the short, we learned about Michael because he had just become the youngest U.S. Men’s National Champion and we were very intrigued by his story. I think that was when we realized there was room for a bigger story about teenagers being elite athletes in a niche sport.

Your previous CAAMFest short, the Loni Ding Award winner in in Social Issue Documentary Making Noise in Silence, was also about youth. (See MOSF 7.7)  Do you have a particular interest in films about young people?
MS: It’s funny you ask this question, because both Sara and I have made several films about young people. I don’t think this was ever a conscious decision on my part, but I guess I do have a particular interest in youth. There are so many possibilities at that age, but it’s also a time when you’re starting to think about identity and who you really are. I guess that doesn’t stop once you become an adult, and maybe it’s my way of continuing to make sense of my place in the world.

Sara Newens: Very well said, Mina. I agree that it wasn’t a conscious decision, but I think there is something so appealing about the idealism of youth. Of course there are various challenges while you’re going through it, but having the perspective as an adult is so enjoyable because you get a chance to see the world through optimistic young eyes, and somehow appreciate it in a new way. It also becomes an opportunity to reflect on how far you’ve come but also how there are core parts of yourself that stay the same.

Your three sets of parents seemed different, yet also similar. Can you talk about that? One of them refers to Tiger Mothering with some self-identification and pride, yet within the API community, this style has gotten a lot of backlash. (See Underscoring Amy Chua and Battle Hymn of the Teddy Bear Psychiatrist.) What’s your takeaway on pushing kids like this? Obviously, your three teens seem so well-adjusted. Would you draw a distinction between Tiger Mothering and what they experienced?
MS: Yes, I’d say each set of parents had a different approach to parenting, but they also all share unconditional love for their children. The other similarity between the kids was that they all wanted to be the best and to make the Olympics. Perhaps the backlash in regards to Tiger Mothering comes when kids are forced to do things, but that was not the case with any of our subjects. In terms of pushing kids to succeed, I think Ariel will be the first to say that her parents definitely pushed her. But this approach worked for her and as she says in the film, it also helped her realize she could do things she didn’t think she could.

SN: It’s also very interesting to see how differently viewers react to the various parenting styles. Ultimately, we can’t help bring our own individual experiences to the table and certain choices will resonate very differently with each viewer. But I think what really appealed to us was the opportunity to showcase three really loving, supportive families and hopefully everyone watching can see a part of themselves reflected back. That’s also why we chose to only follow three kids, so that we could really spend time with all of them and create a deeper engagement with their successes and failures.

What were the biggest challenges and biggest payoffs in making your film?
SN: One of the biggest challenges was definitely fundraising, due to limited resources out there for documentary filmmakers. So we had to get really creative to find ways to keep our momentum going, and also keep up the pace with our kids who were traveling all over the world to train and compete! Fortunately, we were able to use crowdfunding as a means to not only gain the support we needed, but to connect with our audience early on and engage them in the process every step of the way. I truly think we were consistently motivated by our Kickstarter backers, knowing how much they wanted a film that would shed light on an underrepresented sport. So in a way, the greatest payoff came from our biggest challenge—it’s both humbling and gratifying to have that many people rooting for you. And then of course, I would be remiss not to mention the incredible relationships we established as a result of spending so much time with these three families. We are so grateful that they opened up their lives and homes to us again and again.

What are your plans for Top Spin—and your next filmmaking plans?
MS: We’re currently on the festival circuit and have upcoming screenings planned in Salem (Massachusetts), Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego, Toronto, and Florida. We’re also talking with distributors and hope to release the film later this year. As for future plans, we have several documentary projects lined up including one about the recovery of a Japanese town devastated by the tsunami and another following a young Korean American snowboarding sensation.

Wow, I’ll be looking forward to “Top Shred” :)! And I remember you posting on Facebook about your journey back to Japan. Would you like to say more about that project? How is it different than Stories From Tohoku (CAAMFest 2013) or Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (SFIAAFF 2012)?
MS: The Japan project is a very personal one as its focus is on a town I used to live in called Rikuzentakata. After graduating from college, I went to Rikuzentakata to teach English for two years. It was very remote and rural, but I loved it there and the people were incredibly kind to me. So it was heartbreaking when I learned the town had been devastated by the 2011 tsunami. Rikuzentakata was probably the worst hit in the area because of its geography, so the school I taught at, the apartment I lived in, the people I knew… everything was gone. I wanted desperately to do something and decided to make a documentary. I know there have been many films about what happened during the tsunami and the immediate aftermath, but my film deals more with what is happening today, after the rubble has cleared and life is somewhat back to “normal.” Even though we’re now approaching four years since the disaster, full recovery is a very long ways away and I’m not sure if the town will ever fully recover. But people are doing the best they can and I’m hoping this film can be part of the healing process.

Thank you!

Top Spin plays at 7 pm on March 14th at New People Cinema in San Francisco, and 12:30 pm on March 22nd at the New Parkway in Oakland. 

Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a San Francisco psychiatrist and writer. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter here, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.