By Josh Reilly B. and George Bate
In modern cinema, there’s arguably no genre that has been as formulaic as sports stories. The structure laid out by films like the original Rocky made the genre incredibly popular, but also predictable; a down on their luck athlete rises up from their hardships to achieve greatness. It’s a path that invokes genuine emotion and investment from audiences, hence why this formula continues to be played with and used even in 2023.
Its somewhat surprising, then, to see a streaming release that is not only original in that it’s not part of a larger cinematic universe or franchise, but defies the characteristics of its genre as well. That’s exactly what Chang Can Dunk does, a film directed by Jingyi Shao in his feature debut, and releases on Disney+ today. The broader plot of the film is a sixteen year old Asian American high school student who bets that he can successfully dunk a basketball by the time of the annual homecoming. What promises to be a heartwarming teenage sports story actually ends up as a thoughtful, engaging and deeply personal film.
Perhaps the greatest example of just how subversive this film is is that the title character completes his initial quest at eight around the hour mark, as would have been typical of an underdog sports story, but the movie doesn’t end there. Rather, the story continues as Chang grows as a human being, for better and for worse. That’s what makes this film a truly unique venture for Disney, and one that is culturally relevant and grounded in the modern day.
The ultimate strength of Chang Can Dunk is its relative subversive nature. There are, of course, some classic tropes that exist in most sports or high school stories; the presence of a new girl that attracts the attention of the lead hero, the rival who incites anger and jealousy, and the personal journey that promptly wraps up by the end of the film. Those elements all help to keep this film grounded and centered on the story, but it’s the character driven approach and the way in which the unpredictable arc of Chang is prioritized above all else that sets this film apart.
Chang’s arc feels genuinely natural and deeply human throughout, and a big reason for this is the excellent performance of Bloom Li, who portrays this character with a healthy dose of both light and dark throughout. Chang is not all bad, but he’s also not the perfect person, as a son, a student, or a friend. Chang makes plenty of mistakes, a reoccurring habit that is sure to resonate with audiences, making his character vastly different from some of the other famous leads in sports films.
Even the love interest, aka Kristy (played by Zoe Renee), is far more than a plot piece used as a reward for the hero as they complete their objective by the end of the film. That’s been the trope throughout much of Hollywood, but one that director Shao successfully navigated away from. Kristy is a well-rounded human being, and has far more characterization than audiences might expect from someone in a role such as this. The same can be said for Chang; he is not perfect, and that’s the point. It’s a bold move to deviate from the formula that has worked so well for so many years, and a surprising one at that, but it works.
This is not just a sports story about an underdog proving his doubters wrong, but it’s also a tale of redemption. The mistakes referenced are aplenty, particularly the secrets that Chang hides from his mother, something that does serious damage to their relationship when the truth is discovered. Those wrong decisions earlier on in the film all serve a greater purpose, though, in that they make Chang’s evolution that much sweeter come the end of the story.
Chang Can Dunk is a surprisingly riveting, deeply human film that subverts the sports genre to create a genuinely unique story. Bloom Li shines in the central role, as does director Jingyi Shao in his full length feature debut. The talents combine to make what is the best Disney+ original film to date, and one that is not to be missed.