I’m personally not a sports person, but I do love a good sports film. While these stories can be predictable, they always manage to provide an inspiring message. Jingyi Shao’s directorial feature film debut, Chang Can Dunk, breaks the ‘underdog trope’ mold, and delivers a deeply personal film that the audience is sure to relate to.
Chang Can Dunk is full of heart and fun
The film follows Chang (Bloom Li), a 16-year-old Asian-American who is a member of his high school marching band. He wants to start his sophomore year by becoming a new and improved version of himself.
In keeping with his word, he bets the school’s basketball star, Matt (Chase Liefeld), that he can dunk by Homecoming. The 5’8” Chang finds former Estonian League MVP, Deandre (Dexter Darden), who provides him with intense training to help reach his goal.
While the title and plot seem simplistic, Shao’s writing and the cast’s performances are the driving forces of the film. After seeing Darden as Frypan in The Maze Runner trilogy, I was pleasantly surprised by his performance as the wise mentor in this film. He’s still young, but he uses his experiences to impart sage advice on the characters in the film. He radiates an uplifting energy in every scene.
Ben Wang plays Chang’s best friend, Bo. He’s a smart guy who’s unabashedly proud of himself, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Using state-of-the-art tech, he films Chang’s journey in creative ways, which provide a vibrant flair to the cinematography.
Matt and Chang are both interested in the new girl at the school, Kristy (Zoe Renee), but she isn’t reduced to a prize to be won. Kristy is more mature than most of the characters, and Renee pulls off a magnetic performance. The chemistry between Li and Renee is palpable and endearing.
Every obstacle is an opportunity
What differentiates this film from other underdog stories is how Shao tells this through the lens of a Chinese-American teenager. Speaking as a Filipino-Canadian, our parents have expectations of us, and they don’t always align with what we want for ourselves.
Mardy Ma plays Chang’s mom, Chen, and her acting is genuinely heartwarming. Chen is raising Chang on her own, and works tirelessly to lead him on a good path. Their relationship is shaky, to say the least. Chen can be overbearing, and that causes Chang to hide his feelings and aspirations from her. The way they speak to one another is relatable, and may give some viewers flashbacks to their own memories.
I will add that I did enjoy Chen speaking Mandarin, while Chang would respond back in English, or attempt Mandarin. It felt like a real conversation between an immigrant parent and their kid raised in North America.
Li’s performance throughout the film is soulful. Shao writes Chang as a layered character, and Li peels each layer back with so much passion. Although we’re rooting for Chang, he isn’t perfect and will misstep along the way.
This movie takes me back to high school (even though I didn’t want to think about it) and the need to fit in. Chang is still figuring himself out, but he has this one goal he’s devoted to. There’s a power in having this motivation, and when you’re not always given the same opportunities as others, it’s important that you know what you truly want before making a big decision.
Chang Can Dunk sticks the landing
Jingyi Shao writes and directs a stellar love letter to basketball, relationships, and the Asian experience. While new and fresh ideas are hard to come by, Chang Can Dunk subverts expectations and tells a nuanced coming-of-age sports story that’ll pull on the audience’s heartstrings. The only complaint I have is the movie would’ve benefitted with more scenes to flesh out Matt, and his friendship-turned-rivalry with Chang.
I wish I had this film growing up because of how it handles parent/child relationships, and the journey to finding one’s passion during a pivotal age. I hope the younger generation feels inspired by this film and absorbs the lessons it’s trying to tell. This is definitely a movie I’ll be revisiting when I need that sense of motivation. I’m excited to see more from Jingyi Shao and the rest of this cast!
Chang Can Dunk is now streaming on Disney+. Let us know your thoughts on the film on our socials!
'Chang Can Dunk' Review'Chang Can Dunk' Review
- Heartfelt story
- The genuine relationship between Chang and his mom
- Bloom Li's performance
- Would have benefitted from fleshing out Matt's Character