If ‘Chang Can Dunk,’ We Can Dream

Writer-director Jingyi Shao on his Disney debut and being your own savior

Bloom Li as Chang in “Chang Can Dunk.”

Stephanie Mei-Ling

Words by Nguyên Lê

Pop quiz, somewhat rhetorical: What is easier to recall in Cool Runnings, McFarland, USA or Million Dollar Arm? The presence of John Candy, Kevin Costner, and Jon Hamm—or the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, the mainly Latino high school cross country runners, and the Indian professional baseballers, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, that their characters help out?

Between the two common elements in the House of Mouse’s motivational sports dramas, familiar structuring and limited nuance, the latter is the graver offender. To know that the films are of the “feel good” type because their stories’ trajectory is obvious? It’s more forgivable than to realize how much of the spotlight—in both the marketing and final cut—is on the all-American coach and not the minority-driven athletic party.

But Chang Can Dunk, a 2020 Black List title debuting on Disney+ March 10, is going around all that. As scripted and directed by Jingyi Shao, the Illinoisan high schooler Chang/Xiao Ming (Bloom Li) is both the film’s core and the film’s main attraction. There is a coach figure, DeAndre (Dexter Darden), but in the end it’s all on Chang. Just one dunk, and he can get the girl (Zoe Renee), beat the bully (Chase Liefeld), tighten up with the friend (Ben Wang) and—hopefully—delight mom (Mardy Ma). In a parallel universe, Chang and Johnny Tsunami might have been best friends.

On the conception of Chang Can Dunk, Shao shares in the production notes: “I had this huge crush on a girl, but there was another guy who also liked her, and he was really cool, more popular than me, and he was also a terrific basketball player. So, in my teenage logic, I thought that meant I had to get better at basketball, and that is how my obsession with basketball started—basically, to impress this girl.”

JoySauce recently got to chat with the filmmaker, one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch this year, and uncovered more of the film’s Asian American-driven substance, the confidence needed to realize it, and the probable parallels to a Son Lux music video.

“Chang Can Dunk” director Jingyi Shao.

Courtesy of Jingyi Shao

Nguyen Le: What does Bloom Li have that made you go, “We’ve found Chang?”
Jingyi Shao: Bloom is an incredibly talented young actor. I think that Asian male lead actors, the stars that I grew up with, they’re different. They’re different from actors of other nationalities or races. I think I was looking for someone who was funny, likable, you could relate to him, but underneath he had some fire, some darkness as well, duality in a single person. Chang is a good and sweet kid, but he’s also mad and angry, you know? To be able to express that in a way that would always feel really relatable, that you can be sympathetic to is very, very rare and very, very difficult. And Bloom had that in spades. When it comes to Asian guy actors that I love, like Tony Leung or Leslie Cheung, they have this ability to play younger than they look and older than they look at the same time. I think Bloom has that as well.

From left, Zoe Renee as Kristy, Bloom Li as Chang, Dexter Darden as Deandre and Ben Wang as Bo in “Chang Can Dunk.”

Stephanie Mei-Ling

NL: From watching your film, I feel like this could be a companion piece to your direction on Son Lux's “Ransom” music video. To keep things spoiler free, both have very familiar building blocks, but then the structuring and especially the conclusion are completely surprising.
JS: You know, people say that, “All directors are making the same movie over and over again.” I think there is some truth in that! I think I do find myself gravitating towards certain stories. For me, I love underdog stories, stories about people who are trying to better themselves, to empower themselves. Is that possible? Is it possible to change yourself in a major way? I love exploring that.

And I think both in Son Lux’s and in this I’m exploring thatnot just changing yourself, but healing yourself in a lot of ways. Can you actually heal the wounds you’ve experienced and grow past those? Those are themes that I think I’m going to be exploring for a long time, and they’re definitely present in Son Lux’s “Ransom” music video. Thank you for watching that, I made that so long ago!

NL: What do you think your film would be like, in terms of production and reception, had it been made at the same time as your inspirations, for example The Mighty Ducks?
JS: Wow, that’s a really interesting question. I think that...it probably wouldn’t have been made in the first place. It would probably have been very difficult, because to make a film like this back then, who would you cast? Really, there was just [Ke Huy Quan]. And as we’ve all heard, he didn’t really get any opportunities after The Goonies. You know, because in Chang Can Dunk, Chang is in every scene—this film is carried by Bloom Li, who did an incredible job…Maybe audiences would have an even harder time accepting a person of color as a lead. But I do want to say that, if the story was good, I do think they would be able to accept Chang as the hero of a story. I think that’s been true, no matter how far back you go.

From left, Dexter Darden as Deandre and Bloom Li as Chang in “Chang Can Dunk.”

Stephanie Mei-Ling

NL: This acceptance is still hard to earn in recent times. A producer tried to insert a white woman into Crazy Rich Asians while it was being shopped around. The Paper Tigers director wrote an op-ed on how he was asked to whitewash his characters…
JS: And so, it feels surreal [to have realized this film]. It feels incredible. You know, I like to say that I made this for my 16-year-old self. He was going through a lot, he had a hard time, but he also needed a wake up call. That’s what this film is—it’s about taking responsibility, facing the obstacles in front of you. And if you have a goal, and you’re committed to it, the obstacles don’t matter. You’re just gonna have to knock them down one by one…That’s one of the key themes that I tried to explore in this because it’s really hard to believe in that sometimes, you know? That’s why I love Chang so much, he inspired me! I mean, I wrote this character, and it’s inspired by younger men, but in a lot of ways he’s a better version of a younger me.

I mean, you know how hard it is to get a film like this made, right? And then to get the opportunity, and it’s for Disney, and you show up, and there’s 100 people, they’re all looking at you, they all have more experience than you, and you get to tell the story. A lot of my crew members didn’t really understand the nuances of the story, so you feel very alone. You don’t really feel safe. But you have to prove to them that you can be the director, that you can be the leader. So I felt like Chang while making this film, and I would ask myself, “What would Chang do in this situation?” There were a lot of times I was like, “Man, I'm gonna fail, I’m gonna make a terrible movie. All Asians are gonna be like, ‘Look at this, another bad representation.’”

But looking back now, I realized that he wouldn’t quit, he would try to keep going. At the end of the day, the rim is 10 feet high, and you can dunk or you can not. Whatever obstacles are in your way, if you’re dunking, you’re dunking. That’s the metaphor of the film. My main message, really.

From left, Zoe Renee as Kristy and Bloom Li as Chang in “Chang Can Dunk.”

Stephanie Mei-Ling

NL: And to add to your point, I hope it’s valid to think that, had Chang Can Dunk been made back then, there would potentially be a “white savior” element. What we have, though, is that Chang’s savior is whomever he sees in the mirror...
JS: Yeah! I think that with all the Asian American films that are coming out, I feel like I’m part of this huge coming-of-age for our community. We finally put in our time, and we’ve gotten the practice we need to finally express ourselves. That’s why you went from zero films to one film, suddenly 10, 15 films about Asian American experiences a year. We’re all coming up together. When you look at that journey, and you take the responsibility for asking yourself, “What can you do? What, what is in your power to do?” You just focus on yourself and you express yourself in a pure way, then amazing things happen. Amazing things have always happened.

You know, one of my biggest heroes in Hollywood are Sessue Hayakawa and James Wong Howe. They faced extreme racism, and somehow because of their focus and talent, because their goals were always clear to them, they persevered. There’s always evidence of people persevere, and as long as you have one example, that’s how I know it’s possible. I know I can try. You have to believe that, because if you don’t, it’s very easy to talk yourself out of trying to dunk.

From left, Zoey Renee as Kristy, Bloom Li as Chang, Dexter Darden as DeAndre, and Ben Wang as Bo in “Chang Can Dunk.”

Stephanie Mei-Ling

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Published on March 9, 2023

Words by Nguyên Lê

Nguyên Lê is a Vietnamese-English bilingual film critic, writer and translator. He also likes to think he's an amateur cook and photographer, assuming there will never be a time when the kitchen catches fire or the camera is gifted to the ocean. His portfolio site is here, his Twitter is @nle318 and his Facebook is @nguyen.le.334.