‘Chang Can Dunk’ Director Jingyi Shao & Star Bloom Li Talk The Importance of Sharing Asian American Stories – Interview
My understanding of sports is limited to boxing, MMA, Overwatch League (yes, esports count) and basketball. Though I failed at YMCA kids basketball, I grew up following the trials and tribulations of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. I even had a custom Lakers hat that I became convinced was cursed after a particularly abysmal losing streak. I remember visiting Paycom Stadium and the former Staples Center, watching Kobe’s last game in my dorm lounge and the immense sense of loss at his passing.
What I don’t remember as much is Asian representation on the court aside from the likes of Yao Ming, Jeremy Lin, and…actually, that’s about it. Writer/director Jingyi Shao and actor Bloom Li would like to enter Bernard Chang into the conversation.
Shao’s debut feature film Chang Can Dunk, tells the story of the titular Chang, played by Li, as he struggles to navigate the complexities of high school life and familial drama while also making a bet that he can learn how to do a slam dunk in ten weeks.
Telling this story is a milestone for Shao and is very personally significant. Chang Can Dunk is the first feature film he wrote or directed, and much of the plot was inspired by his own experiences as a child whose family immigrated to the U.S.
“It’s been a long journey to get here, and to finally be here, I feel like I dunked. Making a feature film was my dunk,” Shao said. “This film started with a single image, which was a young boy trying to dunk in the snow, and he just keeps doing it and doing it, and he can’t do it. I think at the time because I was writing, I was trying my best to find opportunities. I was wondering if my voice would ever be heard if anyone would ever give me a shot.
“And from there, the idea just wouldn’t go away. The idea of a kid just wanting to dunk, just a very clear goal,” he continued. “Can you do it, or can you not? And I realized that that’s something I think all people can relate to: not just achieving a goal, but just starting on a journey to achieve a goal.”
As an actor, Li is no stranger to telling Asian American stories in a variety of genres, like the 2020 horror short Afterimages, which was screened at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. (I didn’t realize it until after our interview, but while perusing his IMDB page, I realized that at one point, we were in a short film together directed by an Asian friend of mine.) According to Li, celebrating his heritage through art feels natural to him.
“I just love being Asian American. I think our stories are really incredible,” Li said. “I love working with directors who have visions and create their own worlds and their own tones. As an artist, my goal is always to try to reach as many people and connect with them. And I think through these tonal mediums, you could connect to a lot of different people, but also you get something different each time as well as an audience member. It’s just beautiful.”
Though it is releasing now in 2023, Chang Can Dunk was filmed in 2021, the same year that the Stop Asian Hate movement occurred.
“When you hear stories like that, that just total injustice where you feel targeted…there’s a profound sense of hopelessness and discouragement. And I think in that you have to find some kind of hope,” Shao said. “You have to resist that feeling. And you have to keep creating, you have to keep expressing, you have to keep trying to inspire people to go on. I started writing this film at the beginning of the pandemic, and tonally, it was very different. In the beginning, it was much more indie. I wanted it to be like an Asian American Rebel Without a Cause. But the more I wrote, the more I wanted to resist maybe some of the feelings I was having with regards to the pandemic and Asian hate. Ultimately, [Chang Can Dunk] was what came out of it. It’s a celebration of what you can do, even in the face of all the obstacles that are in your life.
“Oh, it made it so much more necessary. It’s like Jing said, it’s very like hope giving, right?” Li added. “And in the process of having like all the Asian hate stuff happening and the ability to continue despite that, that’s what resistance is for me. So continuing to make art in face of that and not letting that stop you was vital to me.”
One of the ways that Shao’s film helps celebrate Asian culture with positive representation is through the use of language. Both Chang and his mother speak Mandarin to different extents throughout the film.
“I wanted to reflect my relationship with my parents, which is that we switch languages depending on how mad we are at each other,” the director said. “I always thought it was a representation of how we didn’t see each other or how we weren’t really communicating as well as we could, how we wanted things to be on our home court if that makes sense. So I just wanted to show that truth in the film, and I was always confident that if a story is engaging enough, an audience is not going to care how much of it is in English or a different language. When we were making this, Squid Game came out, which is entirely subtitles. Young people all watch anime, and you know, nobody watches the English dub, right?”
The focus of the film is whether the character Chang can learn how to dunk, but can Shao and Li can dunk in real life?
“I can’t right now,” admitted Li. “No, I could grab the rim pretty strongly. After the film wrapped, I trained to try to dunk it because I’m actually 5’8, as some of you know, so I have to jump pretty high. But I can’t right now. No.”
“I could if I tried,” laughed Shao. “Sadly, I think I’ve aged out of that. I mean, maybe. We’ll see how much time I have. I’ve never dunked.”