The upcoming Disney+ film Chang Can Dunk is the kind of film I wish I was able to see when I was a kid. It’s an Asian American love letter to hoops culture, and one of the incredibly rare films by an Asian American writer/director and starring a Black and Asian cast. There simply aren’t many films like this at all.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with two of the stars of the film, Bloom Li and Ben Wang, who play best friends Chang and Bo respectively. I also spoke with filmmaker Jingyi Shao, who wrote and directed the film.
Both Li and Shao grew up steeped in hoops culture, and Shao talked about how so much of this story is inspired by his personal experience. Shao mentioned that he feels that there’s a special connection between Asian Americans and basketball. Li, who was a strong enough player to be part of a basketball traveling team, fondly recalled the family-like experience. In a poignant example of the power of representation, Li mentioned that his parents, who never watched sports, were excited to see Yao Ming on the Houston Rockets of the NBA.
Shao, who also wrote and directed the short film Toenail, enjoys exploring the themes of child-parent relationships in Asian immigrant families. He said that he hopes that Chang Can Dunk will resonate with the children of immigrants who might feel disconnected from their parents. “What I hope that people see is that even if there are differences…even if you feel like your parent might not see you. The truth of the matter is that both you and your parent are still growing, and that there’s hope in the future that you guys will find a common connection,” Shao said.
In the film, the legacy of NBA and Lakers icon Kobe Bryant plays an important role. Li said that Bryant represents “a mentality that Chang doesn’t really understand yet, but wants to model himself after.” The famous “Mamba Mentality” that Bryant was known for is something that not only inspires Chang in the film, but also many Asian hoops fans in real life.
I asked Shao about how unique it is that Chang Can Dunk highlights Asian and Black friendships, mentorships and even a romantic relationship, and he said that it is something that even occurred to him during filming. Speaking about the dynamic between Li’s Chang and Dexter Darden’s DeAndre, he noted how impactful it was. “I have seen so many mentor-mentee sports film, giving a lesson, scenes in my entire life, but I had never seen one like this. And to direct that was very powerful,” Shao said. “It’s been inspired by real relationships that I’ve had. That I’ve experienced.”
Ben Wang approached this project from a different background. Unlike Li and Shao, he admitted that he wasn’t much of a fan before joining this project, and attended his first NBA game after filming. However, Wang was attracted to the film because it’s a story about “this general approach to problem solving that I feel like a lot of immigrants and children of immigrants develop,” Wang said. Having immigrated to the United States at age 6, Wang talked about how he had to figure out American culture on his own. “It’s a movie about self improvement, and what healthy self-improvement is vs. what non-healthy attitudes towards it can be,” Wang said.
Wang also talked about the unique friendship that he formed with co-star Bloom Li. “It’s very not often that I meet someone who jives with me so much in terms of the philosophy of art…it was really cool to meet someone like Bloom and get to work with him,” Wang said. Beyond their friendship, Wang mentioned that he recognizes how fortunate he is to work on a film with such a diverse cast. “I had never seen a film like this growing up and I know that I would have loved to have seen a film like this,” Wang said. “And the absence of a film like this from my life is something that I didn’t realize…it was a hole that I didn’t realize was a hole until I saw what could go there.”
This is a big year for Wang, who is also set to star in American Born Chinese, an upcoming Disney+ series based on the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang and starring Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Daniel Wu and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Wang spoke about the surreal experience of performing with these legendary Asian actors. “The most wonderful thing about working with all of them…all of them are so kind and wonderful and generous, despite their immense success, despite their immense fame and despite everything that they’ve been through…that’s the standard,” Wang said.
Chang Can Dunk premieres March 10 on Disney+!
“Chang Can Dunk” follows Chang, a 16-year-old, Asian American high school student in the marching band, who bets the school basketball star that he can dunk by Homecoming. The bet leads the 5 ’8″ Chang on a quest to find the hops he needs to dunk in order to impress his crush, Kristy, and finally gain the attention and respect of his high school peers. But before he can rise up and truly throw one down, he’ll have to reexamine everything he knows about himself, his friendships and his family. “Chang Can Dunk” will premiere exclusively on Disney+ March 10.
Written and Directed by Jingli Shao in his feature film debut, “Chang Can Dunk” stars Bloom Li (“My Dead Ex” “Into the Dark”), Dexter Darden (“Son of the South,” “Saved by the Bell”), Ben Wang (Disney’s Launchpad short “Dinner is Served”), Zoe Renee (“Jin,” “The Quad”), Chase Liefeld (“Sunnyside Up,” upcoming “Honor Student”) and Mardy Ma. Rishi Rajani, Lena Waithe and Brad Weston served as the film’s producers, with Pamela Thur as executive producer.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.