Review: Chang can dunk (but won’t) on ‘Chang Can Dunk’

Four young actors standing side by side in an elevator.
Zoe Renee, left, Bloom Li, Dexter Darden and Ben Wang in the movie “Chang Can Dunk.”
(Stephanie Mei-Ling)
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In a recent interview with GQ, Hong Kong star Donnie Yen noted that Caine, his character in the upcoming action blockbuster “John Wick: Chapter 4,” had originally been given a more common Chinese name. The choice bothered Yen, who lobbied successfully to have the character renamed. “Why does he always have to be called Shang or Chang?” he said in the interview. “Why do you have to be so generic?”

Ouch! Having made peace with my own widely used, boringly monosyllabic surname years ago, I read that story with no small amusement. And I thought about it more than once during “Chang Can Dunk,” a likable, thoroughly generic Disney+ movie about a 5-foot-8-inch Chinese American teenager trying to do something that high school rivals, YouTube commenters and basic physiology rudely suggest he cannot.

Here, of course, the genericism serves a larger purpose. Recycling, long one of Hollywood’s favorite activities, has also become its preferred shortcut to ostensibly more inclusive storytelling. At last, the logic goes, even long-marginalized Asian American audiences can see some version of themselves in the kind of conventional, rotely inspiring underdog sports drama they’ve long been denied. Progress, right?


Sort of. As tiresome as it can be to see old stories repackaged in new colors, the practice can and does yield a few culturally illuminating dividends. Jingyi Shao’s script (which he also directed, slickly enough) may tend toward the pat and overly expository, but 16-year-old Chang (Bloom Li) is, for the most part, refreshingly hard to pigeonhole. He’s smart and well-rounded, athletically and musically; he can be goofy, awkward, charming, arrogant, shy and outspoken. No one calls him a racist slur (or really thinks to call him anything but Chang, his surname-turned-nickname), but stereotypical assumptions about Asian masculinity are in the very air he breathes.

Those assumptions are partly what lead him to strike a foolhardy bet with his basketball-star nemesis, Matt (Chase Liefeld): By homecoming week, Chang vows, he’ll be able to slam-dunk in front of the entire school. Rooting for him to succeed are Kristy (Zoe Renee), a fellow marching band drummer turned fleeting love interest, and Deandre (Dexter Darden), a “two-time Estonian League MVP” turned Verizon store employee who becomes Chang’s coach. Insane workout regimens and upbeat training montages ensue: Chang doesn’t have to make like Michael B. Jordan in “Creed III” and drag an airplane, though he does, in time, become a bench-pressing, box-jumping, protein-shake-chugging monster.

With some help from his tech-savvy best friend, Bo (Ben Wang), he also becomes a social media star, turning an underdog story into a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of viral fame and insatiable ego. Chang’s downward spiral, though paved with brief appearances by a few NBA and ESPN stars, is a bit of a drag, and while redemption is predictably in the cards, it arrives by way of a weirdly unsatisfying final shot (in every sense). Until then, at least, the actors keep things lively: Renee, Wang and especially Darden form a crack supporting team, and Li is an assured enough performer not to make Chang too likable a protagonist.

The movie’s most clumsily dramatized scenes, in which Chang butts heads with his hard-working single mom (Mardy Ma), are also its most compelling, rooted in Chang’s frustration that he can’t seem to say or do anything without earning her reflexive shame and judgment. Like a lot of Asian American child-parent duos, Chang and his mom straddle not just a generational gap but a cultural chasm, one that bequeaths Ma the movie’s best, funniest line: “Why dunking? What can you do with this dunking thing?!”

What indeed. But utility isn’t everything, and “Chang Can Dunk” gets that the pursuit of fun, seemingly frivolous goals can be meaningful in itself, especially when undertaken with the loving encouragement of friends and family. It also knows there’s a time to shine and a time to recede, though its truest lesson is one that some of us have long taken to heart: Be the Chang you wish to see in the world.

‘Chang Can Dunk’

Rating: PG, for language and some thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: Streaming on Disney+