When Disney+’s Chang Can Dunk was first announced, many questioned the idea of an Asian person centering their story on basketball and — from the look of the photos released at the time — his style of dress, which could be construed as appropriating Black culture to benefit another race’s story.
Writer and director Jingyi Shao dispels this notion. And after viewing the film, I agree that the story only uses the guise of basketball and “dunking” as the center of the story, but it’s a much deeper story than basketball. It’s one of Asian American identity, growing up, and Chang’s (Bloom Li) complicated relationship with his mother (Mardy Ma).
“Writing this film made me really reflect on my high school experiences,” Shao told The Nerds of Color. “[It] actually brought up my relationship with my mother, which has evolved a lot over time. One of the biggest realizations that really helped me turn the film into what it is today is the fact that my mom was actually going through a lot of the same things I was going through.”
In the film, Chang eagerly enters his sophomore year with the notion that things are going to go his way. He styles himself differently, sporting a new hairstyle and even new kicks in order to stand out. He befriends the new girl (and crush) in school Kristy (Zoe Renee), but is deterred when the school’s basketball star Matt (Chase Liefeld) expresses interest in her too. Chang, who is 5’8”, challenges Matt that Chang could dunk by Homecoming — in twelve weeks time. A feat that seems nearly impossible due to Chang’s lack of dunking skills. Chang and his best friend Bo (Ben Wang) recruit basketball YouTuber DeAndre (Dexter Darden) to teach him all he knows in order to win the bet.
Although it feels like a similar premise to White Men Can’t Jump and Boogie, Shao shared there were a lot of discussions on the topic of appropriation versus appreciation when it comes to Chang’s love for basketball. “It’s really hard to make an American basketball film and not have African American characters or some sort of African American influence on the film,” he said.
In fact, for DeAndre and Chang’s relationship, one of Shao’s key inspirations for the film was a viral video series called 10,000 Hours, which showed Devin Williams, aka viral basketball personality @DevInTheLab, training two Asian American kids – Kyle and Matty Wong – on how to play basketball. Shao found the video really powerful because of what it represented someone reaching out across cultures and race to share knowledge.
“That was a really powerful gift,” said Shao. “Because as People of Color, we are seeking help. We want people to see us and see what we’re trying to do and help us and to be able to tell a story where two cultures are doing that in a way. It’s a gift. That’s how, ultimately, I think societies evolve and cultures evolve.”
Throughout the film, Chang’s home life is highlighted, particularly his troubled relationship with his mother, who, like many first generation parents, struggle to understand their child’s need to fit in. With films like Everything Everywhere All At Once and The Farewell, Shao says Asian American stories really do revolve around family, particularly the parent-child dynamic relationship.
“There’s a wound there that we’re really trying to heal through telling these stories,” said Shao. “The thing that helped me was a pursuit of my own dream, even if sometimes my parents didn’t support me. By pursuing what I wanted to do, I was able to empathize and sympathize with my parents a lot more [and] understand their journey and their struggles. That helped me bridge my relationship with them in a very powerful way that has transformed who I am in our family and my entire family’s dynamic. I would say this film is about family very much, especially if you have disconnection and differences and how you can heal that and how it is possible to heal that.”
Throughout filming, Li said everything that Shao wrote really applied to him. Though there are very stark differences between Li and Chang, Li says the feeling of being in high school and dealing with family really resonated with him.
“I read the script,” Li shared. “I understand this character. I understand these feelings. I understand these frustrations. There’s so many scenes in the movie that parallels — especially with my mom — to moments I’ve had in my life. I remember what it’s like in high school when everything hurts more.”
Shao hopes the film really resonates with people — not just the Asian diaspora — because we’ve all felt like an outsider before. “We all have these frustrations and feeling like we’ve hit a ceiling outside of the home and we will come home and somehow still not see each other.”
Check out the full interview below:
Chang Can Dunk premieres on March 10 on Disney+.
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