Coming-of-age underdog sports dramas can be inspirational, but because it’s so formulaic, it runs the risk of being predictable. So director Jingyi Shao takes that same narrative formula and tells a story that celebrates those experiences through the Asian-American perspective in Chang Can Dunk. And the result is not relatively fresh but puts a new spin on a classic tale of self-discovery in athleticism. Moreover, because the resonating story is told through the Asian-American lens, it reinforces the themes of family, especially the parent and child dynamics.
The film centers on Chang (Bloom Li), a high school sophomore looking to make a name for himself in the new school year. He mirrors his style and looks after those who reached the pinnacle of success, like the posters of the basketball idols that grace his wall. So when Kristy (Zoe Renee) shows up as the new girl in school, Chang falls for her immediately. As such, he does all he can to impress her. But when Matt, a former friend, threatens to take that away and humiliates Chang at a party. So he bets Matt (Chase Liefeld) that he can dunk by homecoming in 12 weeks. But he’ll have to train for the impossible challenge before he can do that. And with the help of basketball YouTuber DeAndre (Dexter Darden) teaching him the fundamentals and Bo (Ben Wang) chronicling his journey, Chang discovers there’s more to life than winning a dunking contest to impress a girl.
Chang Can Dunk is similar to the classic Disney underdog sports films where the scrappy unrefined player becomes the hero of their own story. The studio pretty much shaped the culture by using cinematic sports to speak to a younger generation. What’s more, it’s a coming-of-age film whose titular character is trying to figure out who he is and creates his identity through basketball and apart from his family. And the film explores all the joys and pains of growing up.
As Chang goes through a grueling training regimen to succeed in dunking, his basketball mechanics improve, and his confidence builds. It’s the typical underdog formula that we have seen again and again. However, Shao subverts those expectations by throwing in a twist where he believes he has gained the respect he’s been so desperately seeking and finds out that he has yet to truly learn his lesson.
But there is more depth to this story than what is in the title. Much of the film centers on the relationship between Chang and his single first-generation mother, Chen (Maddy May). She has difficulty understanding why her son is obsessed with basketball and how it coincides with fitting in with a group. While they only have each other, the generational gap between them makes it clear that they don’t feel seen by each other. The film clarifies that parents may not love how a child wants them to, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t trying their best. We see Chen making sacrifices to provide for her child and trying to set him on the right course to success. She desperately wants to connect with her son, even though he sometimes pushes her away. And so there are these narrative pieces that would help the two bridge that gap and give them the closure they need after an emotionally painful fallout that happened before the film.
With Chang’s story paralleling with Asian-American/immigrant experience, the Asian diaspora can see themselves in the characters on the screen. Some examples include Chang and Chen switching between English and Chinese, which was reminiscent of my upbringing. Being able to see that and relate to all of that speaks to how much I wish I had gotten these kinds of AAPI films when I was growing up. So bringing those experiences and adding those emotional nuances brings more to meaningful representation than just putting it on the screen.
And by going on this journey of self-discovery, Chang can better empathize with his mother’s experience and see that she loves him the best she can while still making sacrifices and dispensing wisdom. The latter influence his commitment to improving his basketball skills and himself. As Chang becomes likable as a character as he becomes more confident in his abilities and reaches certain milestones which no one thought he could do when he started this journey. So, it’s easy to get behind Chang. You want to root for him to dunk, defeat the bully, win his crush’s affection, and gain the respect he deserves. And when that twist finally comes, it shows why it was necessary to subvert the genre and add to Chang’s character arc.
While Chang Can Dunk has a resonating story with cultural specificities, the film connects with those who have felt like outsiders struggling to find an identity. The film may center on the title character’s quest to do the impossible. However, Chao subverts expectations by changing the formula we all know while retaining the emotional nuances that come with it. Because we’ve all felt like outsiders, it’s great that more films deal with those complexities through a more nuanced and cultural lens.