By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer
A heartwarming coming-of-age film, Chang Can Dunk follows a common tradition of Disney sports films like The Mighty Ducks series, Cool Runnings, Safety etc where it focuses on the underdog who ends up being a hero and/or succeeds in their chosen sporting passion.
Directed and written by Jingyi Shao, the film is loosely based on Shao’s own experiences growing up, and how playing basketball redefined how he saw himself and how it impacted his identity.
In Chang Can Dunk, the protagonist ‘Chang’ (Bloom Li), is a young Asian American school sophomore determined to prove his worth to his classmates, friends and everyone else around him. He loves basketball and becomes obsessed with learning how to ‘slam dunk’ to beat the high school’s all-star named ‘Matt’ (Chase Liefeld) while hopefully winning the adoration of his romantic interest: ‘Kristy’ (Zoe Renee).
In his journey of mastering the art of slam dunking, Chang discovers more than just his love for basketball. He learns about himself, his identity, understanding what it means to be Asian American and, most importantly, him resolving his doubts about his masculinity as a young Asian male.
“The experience playing Chang and being involved with this film is probably one of the best experiences of my entire life. Playing a teenage character has made me learn more about myself, my identity, and where I fit in as an Asian American”, he said to AsAmNews.
For Shao, writing and directing this film was his love letter to basketball. Without basketball, he would have never re-discovered himself and form his own identity. Shao was an only child and grew up in suburban New Jersey where there were not many Asian Americans. He told AsAmNews that he felt isolated, lonely and separated. Getting into basketball changed all that for him.
“When you are young, it is hard for you to understand what growing up means. I was confused about my Chinese and Asian-ness and why my parents were different from regular American parents”, Shao mentioned.
“Basketball really helped me understand all this, accept who I was and find where I belong. It was my friend and helped me out of my loneliness and isolation”.
For over a century ( yes it has been that long), Hollywood and Western media, film and television have perpetuated negative stereotypes about Asian males. Depictions of the ‘evil Chinese man’ trying to destroy the world in Dr Fu Manchu was written into popular culture in the early part of the 1900s, with more depictions in later decades of Asian males being asexual, awkward, unattractive and the butt of the joke shown repeatedly.
In more recent years, there has been progress in changing these depictions, but the stereotypes and trauma still remain with both the current and past generations of young Asian American males. How this impacts them becomes an identity issue as they find ways to redefine what masculinity means. Both Li and Shao weighed into this discussion point, mentioning that a huge part of the film is about the effects of these negative stereotypes, and how they didn’t really see many positive Asian American role models on the screen growing up.
“Understanding Asian American male masculinity is a huge part of Chang Can Dunk, and the way I tried to explore it through playing Chang was to confront these issues head-on and show how he was trying to figure out where his power is as an Asian male”, said Li.
“I think a lot of issues we Asian males face when it comes to our masculinity is that we feel we have no control over changing the negative stereotypes as teenagers. Our TV screens of the past showed the world that being an Asian male is basically being a bad person or being a joke”, Shao expressed.
Finally, Shao discussed the stereotypes around basketball, and how in the US it is never associated with Asian Americans, and it goes back to the negative stereotypes that Asians are not ‘tall enough’ to play basketball let alone slam dunk.
“When we Asians step on a basketball court, we are already looked at as a stereotype of not being ‘masculine’ enough or ‘athletic/ tall enough’ to play basketball. When I started to get good at basketball, people’s perceptions of me changed and it really didn’t matter that I was literally a walking stereotype”.
“This is what I wanted to show in Chang Can Dunk, that we should never be judged for our cultural background and negative stereotypes. Chang goes through all the motions and it is basketball which changes how he sees himself and his growth”.
Chang Can Dunk can be seen on the Disney Plus streaming service beginning today, March 10, 2023.
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