Jingyi Shao Scores With Feature Film Debut ‘Chang Can Dunk’ – Review
When I was a kid, my Dad signed me up for little league basketball, hoping that one day we’d have an NBA star in the family. Unfortunately, six-year-old me wasn’t exceptionally gifted (I made two baskets in my first season, only one of which was for the right team), and after a couple of years, my poor father gave up on his dream. Was I bad at shooting? Yes. Was I vertically challenged? Also yes.
Bernard Chang can relate to at least one of those problems.
Writer and director Jingyi Shao’s feature film debut Chang Can Dunk, follows the titular Chang (Bloom Li) as he starts his sophomore year of high school determined to ditch his dorky anonymity by changing his hairstyle and “fashun” sense to evolve into the miraculously popular Chang 2.0. When Chang hits it off with a new student and fellow marching band member Kristy (Zoe Renee), things turn around. When the school’s basketball star and former childhood friend turned rival Matt (Chase Liefeld) challenges him for Kristy’s affection and publicly embarrasses him, the five ft. 8 in. Chang bets he can learn to do a slam dunk in ten weeks. Recruiting the help of his best friend Bo (Ben Wang) and former high school star turned YouTuber Deandre (Dexter Darden), Chang must endure rigorous physical training, all while navigating the troubled relationship with his single mother Chen (Mardy Ma).
At times, Chang Can Dunk feels like three distinct stories: a sports film, a high school coming-of-age story and Asian American family drama. Sometimes it can feel like there are too many plot threads to follow, yet somehow it all works together and feels cohesive. The challenge of training for the bet feels like a natural extension of Chang’s relationships with Kristy, Bo and Matt. His friendships and rivalries motivate his training and are a point of contrast to his isolated home life. Chen’s strained relationship with her son drives him to seek Deandre’s fatherly presence and warm coaching.
While basketball and the bet drive the narrative of the movie and Chang’s high school life fills in the background, Chang and Chen’s loving yet argumentative relationship provides so much of the heart and heartbreak of the film. As a first-generation Asian American, I was unprepared for how authentic and unflinching the depiction of their conflicts felt, at times mirroring almost word for word the arguments I have had with my parents over the years. It makes sense, though, as Shao drew from his own life as inspiration when writing the film.
Shao’s use of language was a particularly effective tool in portraying the disconnect between mother and son. Chen frequently switches between English and Mandarin when she talks to Chang. However, he rarely responds in kind, only speaking in Mandarin in the few moments when they are happy together or when he doesn’t want other characters to know what they are talking about. Chen is forced to juggle different cultures and expectations, but this is the only world that Chang knows and the only way he knows how to be. Outside of its character significance, the use of Mandarin is welcome and refreshing. It adds an even greater emphasis on realism and representation in a film that already prides itself on authenticity and diversity.
Li’s performance as Chang has its ups and downs. To get the bad out of the way, some of his line delivery comes across as wooden and lacking in any appropriate emotion. This is especially evident in scenes when he is in conflict with Matt, particularly the first time they talk about the bet. Granted, this could be a conscious decision to portray Chang’s discomfort, lack of confidence and social awkwardness, but it feels like he just dropped the ball here. Li is at his best playing directly off his co-stars in intimate one-on-one scenes. His friendly camaraderie with Bo, bashful flirtation with Kristy, conflicted love and resentment for Chen and reverence for Deandre are convincing and captivating.
The film’s supporting cast is a continuous joy to watch, and even after multiple viewings, the loveable characters still found new ways to win me over. Wang imbues Bo with quirky confidence and practical know-how, emphasizing Chang’s insecurity and struggle to learn one specific dunking skill. Darden is as charming and funny as Dexter, and when paired with Bo, the two pair their energies perfectly. Though Matt is positioned as the film’s main antagonist, he doesn’t come across as a total villain. Rather than playing the one-note trope of the high school bully, he’s the talented athlete who’s never been seriously challenged before, and Liefeld’s performance hints at the history of two boys who simply drifted apart over the years—Ma’s portrayal of Chen as the weary working mother adds a necessary gravitas to the film. As a secondary antagonist, her performance has so much nuance as she tries and fails to relate to her son.
Renee rounds out the cast with a confident performance as Kristy that, just like Chang, you can’t help but fall in love with from the first time you see her. Like Bo, she has a clear sense of her talent, worth and identity and, at several points in the film, makes it clear that she does not want Chang to see her as a prize to be claimed should he win the bet. Unfortunately, the film falls victim to that very cliche, though this may be due to the story being told from Chang’s perspective. I wish the film had respected her wishes and utilized her in a greater capacity than just a love interest who is a good drummer.
One of the most memorable and delightful aspects is its sense of fun and style. The obligatory training montages convey a rewarding struggle, triumph and joyful journey. A combination of quirky animation, archival NBA footage, and creative techniques like using different aspect ratios to indicate phone recordings or social media occasionally add visually engaging punctuation to the film. But the movie shines during the scenes showcasing the YouTube videos Bo creates for Deandre. The variety of styles, color palettes, and cartoony special effects used to chronicle Chang’s journey keep the story engaging, setting the film apart from other basketball films and preventing it from feeling stale.
Chang Can Dunk isn’t so much a basketball movie but instead uses the sport and the goal of landing a slam dunk to tell its story of ego, identity, and family that feels both authentically Asian American but also universal. Its charming, funny cast can make you smile even after multiple viewings. Stylish editing keeps the film feeling fresh, energetic and modern. While I’m obviously not going to reveal whether or not Chang makes his dunk, you can bet it’s worth the watch to find out.