Thursday, February 29, 2024

‘Chang Can Dunk’ is a Slam Dunk

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Growing up isn’t easy. While Chang Can Dunk doesn’t reinvent the wheel regarding young adult stories, the new Disney+ film represents the possibilities for a bold new era. Not just in terms of cinematic storytelling, allowing images to propel the narrative, but also in allowing for messier characters and sidestepping pat and overly treacle answers. If that wasn’t enough, it’s brimming with charm and heart.

I was more than pleasantly surprised when I watched Jingyi Shao’s Chang Can Dunk; I was shocked. It represents a bold new step for the streaming service. Written and directed by Shao, it is a story about a young man not growing up but learning to grow up, with Shao refreshingly refusing to take narrative shortcuts. Chang (Bloom Li) is a shy band nerd, obsessed with basketball but even more obsessed with being popular.

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Chang (Bloom Li)

A desire that I once had during that period of my life, showing another example of specificity breeding universality. Shao perfectly captures moments of Xiao Ming, or Bernard, as he’s known to his American friends, trying desperately to wear the “right thing,” to say “the right thing” in so honest a manner that it had me cringing both in sympathy and genuine empathy.

If that wasn’t enough, Chang Can Dunk is a strangely mature film for Disney+ about a child going through the growing pains of maturity. A typical Disney+ movie would have been about a Chinese American boy making a bet with the popular boy Matt (Chase Liefeld) that he could dunk, and that is all it would be, with maybe a sliver of something here or there. Rest assured that Chang Can Dunk is that movie, but after Chang proves that he can dunk, there are another forty-eight minutes left.

Understand that even if Chang Can Dunk was merely just about a Chinese-American boy crushing on the new girl Kristy (Zoe Renee), who seems to be into rock n’ roll compared to Chang’s hip-hop, and feeling pressured to stand up to Matt after years of pseudo bullying, and hiring a YouTuber Deandre (Dexter Darden) a former C-league basketball player turned cell phone salesman with a fledgling YouTube channel, it would still be the most lovely thing to come out of the Dinsey+ assembly line. It’s such a breezy charming film that had it been what everyone expects this type of movie to be, it would still be terrific.

But Chang Can Dunk is that and so much more. Shao’s script is more thoughtful and nuanced than the average Disney Plus movie. Not only do kids mildly swear, but the issues they face are issues we would typically see without having a scene where the characters clearly state their problems. For example, Shao implies that Chang’s mom Chen (Mardy Ma), is a first-generation immigrant overcoming her own issues, much like her son.

In addition, Shao shows us friction between Chang and Chen without Chang explicitly saying so. Shao trusts that we’ve seen enough stories about first and second-generation immigrants that he need not tell you why people are acting this way and allow you, instead, to infer. But the impressive thing is how Shao frames Chen both objectively and subjectively. We understand how Chang believes his mother is judgemental, but we can also see a woman confused, alone, and scared, without knowing how to show her son that she loves him.

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Chang (Li) and Chen (Mardy Ma) have a heart to heart

Chen and Chang are still trying to heal from Chang’s father leaving them. At one point, Chang tells Kristy, “They’re separated, but I think eventually they’ll get tired of it and get back together.” This a telling line as it becomes increasingly clear that both Chang and Chen are forced to admit that he is, in fact, NOT coming back; part of the emotional drive is how that feeling of abandonment affects both of them.

Then there’s Matt, Chang’s classmate and sometimes bully. Shao implies that Matt and Chang were once friends but have grown apart. Chang Can Dunk never explains how Matt and Chang grew apart. Instead, he prefers to show how Chang is forced to overcome his inferiority complex. He watches Matt’s social media, envious of his physique, money, and social status. His idol Kobe Bryant acts as inspiration as he tries to beat Matt. What that means Chang doesn’t know, and Shao and his cameraperson Ross Reige, show Matt as both a cocky and also confused kid.

In gym class, Matt and Chang are competing in an obstacle curse that ends with them having to do free throws. They both shoot at the same time, with Matt using his ball to knock Cahng’s out of the way and make the basket. Chang is furious that Matt “cheated.” Matt seems legitimately confused. “It’s gym class. Don’t try so hard.”

A lesson Chang learns the hard way again and again. Especially when it comes to wooing Kristy, in what Chang sees as a competition between him and Matt; although Matt says and does some douchebag things, Shao eschews a straightforward villain. Later in the film, when both parents are called into the principal’s office, we see Matt’s parents outraged and defensive, while Matt sits between them, wishing for them to calm down. 

Shao eschews caricatures and gives us characters much more complex than this genre usually offers. For example, once Matt and Chang make a bet, Kristy approaches Chang, “Look, I just got here. I don’t wanna be in some drama.” We often see boys fight over girls, and vice versa, but rarely in these types of stories are they given enough agency to acknowledge what is happening and how awkward it makes them feel. “So, this bet thing has nothing to do with me, right?” Chang assures her that it isn’t, which is true, because what drives Chang Can Dunk and what pushes Chang to make a bet is Chang himself and his insecurities, both real and imagined.

Then there are the performances. Chang Can Dunk has such an effervescent charm that primarily comes from how grounded every character is and the energy the actors bring to their part. Dexter Darden’s Deandre is the swaggering mentor who sees a good kid in Chang and can’t wrap his head around why, of all things, dunking is his obsession. Darden has an infectious charm; he almost steals the show and would have, had the rest of the cast not been so strong.

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Chang (Li) and Bo (Ben Wang) train to dunk

Li’s Chang looks stilted until you realize that Chang seems ill at ease with himself, not Li. He plays Chang like a tightly wounded spring, who aches to show everyone how awesome he can be, but can’t get out of his head. The one person who brings that out of him is Renee’s Kristy, with a performance so good, it’s disarming how you rarely catch her acting. The two are endearing together, making it all the sadder when Chang loses himself in his quest to be popular.

Yet, the real sparks are between Li and Ma. In a fraught mother-and-son relationship, the two dance around each other as if made of glass, afraid they may break the other while simultaneously being harsher and more brutally honest regardless of feelings. Shao nakedly shows each of them saying things to each other, and it isn’t until Chen utters “I love you,” that her delivery is halted, not because she is unsure but because she is scared of admitting this to a son who she thinks hates her, or at the very least is ashamed of her. Li’s delivery of “I love you,” is no less bracing because it comes out like a confession.

Shao and Reige take Chang Can Dunk and Disney Plus Originals to a new era of visual storytelling. Not just in basic montages and anime influences, which we’ve seen even back in the Lizzy McGuire days, but in adjusting aspect ratios to enhance the moment. Moments such as when Chang barges into the gym to issue the challenge to Matt. It is a scene infused with raw and palpable rage. Not to mention Lim’s delivery of “Sit down sidekick,” is tinged with a sense of glee, as if he had been practicing that line in his head for hours

Chang Can Dunk even has fun calling attention to its style with Deandre, the YouTuber cum mentor for Chang, asking Chang’s best friend Bo (Ben Wang) to shoot the videos and give his videos a professional quality. Bo says he’ll make his videos resemble Scorsese, but Deandre demands Micahel Bay. 

Shao and Riege delight in showing Chang, Bo, and Deandre crafting videos, utilizing practical and post effects, reminding us that anything posted is severely edited by design. It also offers a fun little insight into filmmaking, reveling in the process, as it were. Shao and Riege know when to be stylistic and when to pull back, such as when Chen and Chang get into an argument, and we spend part of it outside at a distance as if Shao himself doesn’t want us to get too close, as if it makes him too uncomfortable.

The moment in question comes after Chang has dunked. After it is revealed, Chang. Chen is confused by why her son is so obsessed with dunking, and truthfully so is Deandre. But as he tells Chen, “That’s what he wants to do.” Teenagers get obsessed with weird stuff all the time, especially when it’s something like just wanting to dunk. But, because they are young and can only see the present, they often get lost, and Chang Can Dunk gives us a story about a boy trying to re-invent himself only to realize that reinvention only matters if it comes from within.

Shao doesn’t shy away from Chen’s perspective as she follows Chang and sees him trying to dunk, even as it snows. But, unfortunately, she can’t understand him even though she wishes she did. The great tragedy of Chang Can Dunk is how both mother and son so desperately yearn for the other to understand them and to accept the other for who they are. I was tearing up when both came to this realization.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Shao’s Chang Can Dunk is that it feels like it comes from someplace other than a cynical corporation. Coupled with this is how Shao assumes not only that you’ve seen other movies but that you’ve seen other Disney movies and skips over a lot of scenes telling us things we already know. I mean, ultimately, it’s hard not to love a film where two characters make up after a years-long feud by singing the Pokemon theme song.

Images courtesy of Disney+

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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