Chang Can Dunk is the first studio teen movie to have an Asian-American male as its protagonist. (If anyone knows one that came before this I’m missing out on please let me know.) With that being said, the representation in this film alone makes it a must watch and a film that I needed to review.
After all, this character’s literally me.
The film comes from debut filmmaker Jingyi Shao’s, whose journey from working as a production assistant on Chinese sets led him to directing opportunities in commercials, music videos and now, a Disney+ original. The film landed second on the Hollywood Blacklist in 2020, which paved the way for Shao’s script to hit the screen. The Blacklist is an annual collection of the most revered industry screenplays that have yet to be green lit.
Bernard Chang (Bloom Li), who goes by Chang, is a sixteen-year-old determined to create a new high school identity in his sophomore year. This gets held up by Matt, the star member of the basketball team who is constantly getting in his way. On the first day, Matt gets in the way of Chang connecting with the new star of the marching bad, Kristy (Zoe Renee). Chang’s frustration with Matt prompts him to make a bet that he’ll be able to dunk by the end of the football season and puts his three thousand dollar Charizard card on the line. This sense of jeopardy leads Chang on a journey of tireless work to reach the rim. His new basketball coach DeAndre (Dexter Darden) vlogs Chang’s journey towards dunking, aided by Chang’s filmmaking friend, Bo (Ben Wang). Chang’s need to dunk and make a name for himself sends him on a journey of self-discovery where he must make the person he wants to be match the person that he is.
Writer-Director Jingyi Shao wrote this film from a mixture of childhood memories and his experience as a child of American immigrants. Shao used the idea of Chang dunking as a goal that anyone who ever wanted to achieve something could relate to. The story revels in Chang’s journey of growth, and that doesn’t just come from the Rocky-style montages of his workout. This universal idea acts as a jumping off pad for an underdog story that allowed Shao to reveal his voice and perspective as an Asian American.
The film was written and produced during COVID and during a time with a rise in Asian hate. This prompted Shao to make the tone of the film more hopeful and grounded as the classic underdog tale. The story started out much more indie. (I figured the script changed a bit between its spot on the Blacklist and its production through Disney as that’s not a frequent happenstance) Shao describes that early version of the film as the Asian American Rebel Without a Cause and, while that energy can be seen throughout the film, in the end, it’s a celebration of overcoming the obstacles of life. Shao’s proud of being able to show his relationship with his parents in a way true to his experience. He had them switch languages depending on how mad they were at each other and portrays that generation gap really well through the refusal from both parent and child to literally speak the same language.
Chang Can Dunk is another familiar teen sports story that’s features many tropes and story beats that have been staples of these Hollywood genres. This does make the whole movie mostly expected and harder to engage with on a deeper level but this formula is executed very well and nails its execution of the emotional beats. Where it’s held back is in its screenplay, which I’m sure had to go under a fair bit of changes when running through Disney. If Shao’s claim of this film originally being the Asian American Rebel without a Cause is anything to go on, one can infer that the script has surely been sanitized. As much as the film’s ability to appeal to broader audiences is a welcoming prospect it does hold the story down.
One of the fundamental truths about high school is that it’s weird and full of imperfect and messy moments. (Check out Ethan Eng’s Therapy Dogs for the most raw version of this) While Chang isn’t lacking conflict, it fails to engage in the mature aspects of high school. It holds back the raw emotion that teenagers go through and that’s what drives the best teen dramas. Some of the most important emotional scenes feel too true to the script rather than the characters, a symptom of both Shao’s reliance on his own text and the need to fit a cleaner Hollywood production. Its just very hard for directors in their 30s or older to capture the voice of an ever-changing Generation Z. This attempt to capture the modern teen dialogue not only creates some cringe scenes that are more lighthearted but also makes the emotions of these characters a lot more stilted. Movie dialogue often calls for very articulate speech but that’s something you rarely see in teenaged, emotional outbursts. This makes the whole of the characters experience feel like a fantasy. The film mostly plays to this well with its underdog sports-film structure and never truly tries to be anything else. It is a disappointment to see a story like this takes away from the chance to truly explore young people, especially a young Asian American man. I hope we see a breakout narrative film explore a dramatic version of this story that embraces realism.
The characters themselves aren’t afforded much depth and this film felt conflicted about who it cared about the most. Instead, the whole film keeps a much more omniscient perspective that creates well shot scenes but also takes away from personal connection to the characters. Most great films run off of the relationship between two people or a person’s relationship with the world around them. This film doesn’t commit to either and, as a result, half-bakes both. The film does feature touching scenes between Chang and his mom Chen that act as the heart of this story, but it’s not tied enough to the goal of the story. Chen herself says she doesn’t understand the point of Chang dunking and the film doesn’t expand much on how she comes to understand his goal as an extension of his adolescent struggles.
The romantic sub-plot felt a little unneeded in a film that struggles to pass the Bechdel test and Kristy remains mostly passive and inconsequential to the film’s story. The film also allows what I’ve dubbed the Scott Pilgrim problem to seep through as Kristy, from our perspective, already clearly shows interest in Chang. There’s no journey for Chang to discover if she likes him or for us to discover if she does. We instantly know she does and it seems almost baffling that Chang doesn’t. The two also show an apparent lack of chemistry and while their both good in their own right, casting them together felt like a misfire.
Even with all my criticisms, this film still taps into a perspective that is both clearly Hollywood and the perspective of an Asian American. Living in North America often shapes our stories to become more like those of our fellow Americans, an idea I’m glad to see reflected. Some might see this as a symbol of lazy shortcuts to representation. Simply repeating Hollywood formats that have been dominated by white people for so long may not always look like progress but Shao made sure his perspective shined through. His relationship with his mom is portrayed in such a honest light. The way that he engages with the struggles of an insecure Asian teen is easy to connect to. Chang is able to engage with both the most heroic and shameful parts of being an Asian American teenager. He is fueled by the need to prove himself to others and makes great progress but he struggles with insecurity regardless.
It’s a feeling someone like Dan Kwan, who literally won an Oscar this year, deals with. Even by being declared the year’s best director he said he felt his imposter syndrome was at an all-time high. That’s a feeling that can stay with us no matter where we are in life and I hope this Chang builds up the confidence in any young Asian-teen to be confident in their own skin. We don’t have lie about who we are.
Chang Can Dunk is now available on Disney+.