At the age of 10, Cheng Hao's life seemed set to follow a different path. Then, while studying in fifth grade at a school in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang province, Cheng showed potential as a basketball player. However, his sports dream was never truly realized due to a physical condition.
Now as a film director who shot to fame with the Chinese online drama Evil Minds 2, Cheng is rejoicing at the chance to direct Ping Pong, an online series that focuses on two Chinese athletes.
Since he got on board with the project in 2018, Cheng and the crew prepared a lot for the production, ranging from interviewing professionals to watching videos of major competitions, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2015 World Table Tennis Championships in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.
The 44-episode drama, starring actors Bai Jingting and Xu Weizhou, was released on the streaming platform iQiyi on March 9.
Starting in the early 2000s and spanning more than a decade, the tale chronicles the development of two table tennis players－Xu Tan, an introverted youngster who inherits the love of table tennis from his grandfather, and Yu Kenan, an unruly prodigy who aspires to become a world champion.
The two players experience ups and downs in their careers, and form a relationship which evolves from that of opponents to close friends who team up to compete at the World Table Tennis Championships and the Olympic Games.
"Table tennis is a popular and revered sport in China, but few films and television dramas about the sport have been produced," says Cheng.
"After interviewing dozens of professional players, we realized that the years of tough training can be tedious and boring. However, the players' love of the sport drove them to endure loneliness and survive fierce competitions. I was quite touched by that spirit."
A distinctive characteristic of sports-themed stories in China is that they have a "bar" for the audience, requiring viewers to have a basic grasp of the rules to ensure a more immersive viewing experience. The drama ends each episode with a two-minute animation elaborating on the rules or sports terms featured on the show, such as the types of paddles and the significance of some special training programs.
Liu Yi, a former Chinese national team member, was invited to coach the actors for three months. Filming took place between November 2018 and May 2019, much longer than the time needed to shoot a regular online drama in China.
A major hurdle in the production, however, was the size of the table tennis ball, Cheng says.
"The ball is too small for regular cameras to get clear shots. Also, the table tennis players move in a smaller space compared with basketball or soccer players. With few references in similar films or TV dramas, we had to experiment with the camera to deliver compelling scenes," Cheng adds.
To trace the movement of the ball, the crew rented two high-definition cameras capable of shooting a maximum of 3,000 frames per second. Usually, most feature-length films and TV dramas are shot in 24 frames every second.
In addition, before shooting the competition scenes, the actors were given some high-exertion exercises, such as running in circles, to make their faces look red and sweaty, providing a more realistic effect than makeup, Cheng says.
"To showcase tightened muscles in close-up shots, we needed to keep doing exercises until right before the shooting started," says Xu Weizhou, who plays the role of Yu.
He says the drama marks his first time playing a professional athlete, and perhaps also the most "exhausting" of all his screen work so far.
Recalling that the show set a record for reshoots in his acting career, Xu Weizhou says he had to pay attention to details, such as eye contact and footwork, while ensuring an authentic standard of play.
"Table tennis is our national sport. Most of us have played it growing up, but I believe this drama will help youngsters understand the spirit of the sport more deeply," he says.