Jingyi Shao on ‘Chang Can Dunk’ and Telling a Story for His Younger Self
Mar 9, 2023
There’s nothing quite like a feel-good sports film. Their stories can inspire even the most unathletic of us, teaching us that our dreams are possible and that we can reach them if we just try hard enough. With a terrific cast and a heartwarming story that goes beyond what you’d expect from a basketball film, Chang Can Dunk, the latest offering from Disney+ and executive producer Lena Waithe, seeks to join that canon, taking the typical coming of age story and reimagining it for a new kind of audience.
In the grand tradition of Disney sports films like The Mighty Ducks or Cool Runnings, Chang Can Dunk follows our titular underdog hero, a young high school sophomore (Bloom Li) determined to prove himself to his classmates, friends, and new crush (Zoe Renee). When a former friend turned foe (Chase Liefeld) challenges him to prove that he can dunk a basketball, actually, Chang sets out on a journey of discovery that will take him far beyond the basketball court, teaching him more about himself than he could ever have imagined.
Collider was excited to sit down to chat with Jingyi Shao, the writer-director behind Disney’s newest underdog story. During this interview, he discussed what it’s like joining the canon of Disney sports films, as well as his inspirations for the film, expressing Chang’s inner monologue through music, and how the minority experience changes the coming of age story for a new generation.
Image via Disney+
RELATED: ‘Chang Can Dunk’ Trailer Shows a Boy’s Quest on the Basketball Court
Check out the full interview below, and stream Chang Can Dunk when it hits Disney+ on March 10.
I loved the film. I grew up on stuff like Mighty Ducks, so this was very much within that canon for me, so the first thing that I wanted to ask you was: you’re joining a canon of Disney sports films, the likes of Cool Runnings and Miracle and Mighty Ducks. How does it feel to join those other films?
JINGYI SHAO: I mean, it’s surreal. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll be able to accept it until the premiere when it’s going to be at Disney Studios. I’m going to sit in the theater that Walt Disney used to watch dailies in. And even when I was editing, we had to drop in the asset of the castle. And every time it would play, I would cheese, you know what I mean? Because I’m like, “I can’t believe it.” I mean, Disney films shape culture because kids watch it. And to make a film that a lot of kids are going to see, to make a film that would’ve really spoken to a younger version of myself. It’s just an incredible honor.
And you get to have this sort of special honor too, of it being during the whole hundredth anniversary celebration. So you not only get that, but you get to add to something that’s already celebrating this massive company, which I can imagine is huge.
SHAO: Yeah, no, it’s crazy. That’s all I got to say. It’s crazy. I was talking to my lead actor, Bloom, about it, and I’m like, “You’re a Disney prince.” You know what I mean? And it’s wild. It’s amazing.
Speaking of other films, you’ve noted Mighty Ducks and John Hughes films as an inspiration for this. Were there any other specific titles that you looked at when you were writing the film?
SHAO: I think structurally, I looked quite a bit at Karate Kid. What I really love about Karate Kid is that it’s a teenage coming-of-age story, but there’s also a lot of heart. That relationship between Mr. Miyagi and his disciple is…there’s a lot of real emotional weight in that. There’s a lot of sadness, some darker aspects, and it’s part of the story. And I really wanted to see if I could mix the highs with the lows, because I think that the human experience is really part of that, especially coming of age.
Image via Disney+
You’re making a coming-of-age story, and obviously this is a story that’s putting an Asian character in this lead role, which is usually…when I was growing up, it was all white kids. So, how does the minority experience, or being a child of an immigrant change that coming-of-age story, if at all?
SHAO:I mean, I’ll talk about it in terms of two contexts. I think that growing up, I’m second generation. I actually wasn’t born in the United States, but I basically came here when I was a baby. And the way that I was trying to figure out, “how am I going to fit into the society around me?” is through movies. Because my parents were having the same struggle at the same time as I was, so I couldn’t really look up to them. I couldn’t ask my mom, “What should I wear to prom? Or how should I style my hair?” Or et cetera. “What kind of music should I listen to?” And so I think immigrant kids, they really absorb media, media representation as a means by which they can learn how to fit in. The problem with that, if you don’t see any versions of yourself that don’t directly reflect your experience is you end up feeling like you’re missing something.
And in a lot of those films, the kid is an underdog, he has struggles at school, but he comes home and his relationship with his mom, at least, is supportive. And that was the biggest struggle for me as a kid, is I would watch these Disney films and I would feel like my family isn’t like the family in these films. And so if their solution comes from their family, what am I supposed to do?
Eventually I realized that my parents were loving me the best that they could, and they were giving me a lot of lessons that have shown up in later parts of my life. And I hope that with this film, younger versions of me can watch this and know and see more clearly how their parents are loving them and taking care of them and helping them grow in ways that maybe aren’t as obvious, because it hasn’t been seen in film and television as much, if that makes sense.
Yeah, that makes sense. Because one of the things that I was thinking when I was watching this film is that Chang’s relationship with his mother was something that reminded me a lot of my relationship with my own parents, because not everybody gets that sort of super supportive, Disney parents relationship. So I think that was one of the things that struck me the most about this movie was that, yeah, you can have a not picture-perfect relationship with your parents, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad one necessarily.
SHAO: Yeah, absolutely.
Image via Disney+
One of the other interesting things about this film for me is how much music plays a part in it and gives the audience a peek into Chang’s inner monologue through a ton of genres, through hip hop, through pop music, through drumline. So can you walk me through that a little bit? Was that always part of your vision for this film?
SHAO: Yes. I also work with an amazing music supervisor, my friend Angela Asistio and composer Nathan Matthews. The three of us formed…we always had a vision for that. This was going to be a film with all different kinds of music, because growing up I listened to all sorts of genres, and I was influenced by all sorts of genres. We wanted the music to give the film a bit of a nostalgic tinge. And so Kristy’s love of, well, she calls it ’90s rock, but is really late ’90s, early 2000s, alt pop rock, rock…indie rock, what have you.
I think that we wanted to reflect how young people are very eclectic with their tastes, and they can jump across genres. I mean, that was always a huge part of it. And I really like that you brought up the inner monologue part because a lot of kids do see their lives as a film and little things that we may think is nothing like, I don’t know, being in a gym basketball drill could be the most epic thing for a teenager. So we really wanted to use music to boost that.
I noticed that on your Instagram, you’ve been posting a little bit about your inspirations for this film, and the one thing that really stuck out to me was that you posted a picture of Syndrome from The Incredibles, talking about how relating to villains kind of scares you and teaches you that one wrong turn, and you get someone who demands respect and to be seen or else. And Chang really rides that line, especially towards the sort of middle point and then into the third act of this film. So, how do you go about balancing that so that he doesn’t end up going too far in one direction or the other?
SHAO: I mean, I think what you’re asking there is a really deeper philosophical question of life, because when you have a lot of privilege and things work out, it’s easy to be a good guy. But when you’re mistreated or people don’t see you, or your best efforts get spoiled, it’s hard to have a positive outlook. And I think the truth of a lot of underdogs is that they could go easily one way or another. A great hero is an underdog who, despite the obstacles, decides to be good. But a great villain is an underdog who, because of the obstacles, finds power in being bad. And underdogs have that tension, underdogs have that inherent tension. And I purposely put that in this film because I think a lot of young people when they’re looking for role models of who they want to aspire to…especially I think young men, right? Because that’s a whole thing. I can’t believe I’m going to bring his name up, but for example, Andrew Tate. You know what I’m saying?
Image via Disney+
SHAO: They’re looking for a way to be seen. And when you feel invisible, you’re very, very vulnerable. You’re so desperate to…and that’s a very human thing to want to be seen. You’re very, very vulnerable to that kind of message if you feel like it empowers you. And so this film is, in a lot of ways, is very much about that and how to face that.
This film, in contrast to sort of other Disney sports films that we grew up with, Chang accomplishes the dunk about halfway through the film, which when you go into this film, or at least when I went into this film, is kind of what you’re expecting to be the thing that he accomplishes at the end, and the story ends there. But you’ve chosen to move past that and sort of deal with, not the fallout necessarily, but what happens after. Why is moving past that one accomplishment so important to the story, do you think?
I think ultimately the theme, the thing that Chang is really dealing with is the fact that his self-worth is so much tied to how others perceive him. You know what I’m saying? He doesn’t think that he has any value unless other people see that value in him. And so in a way, I needed to create a situation where people do see him, but he hasn’t learned his lesson yet. And the only way to do that is for him to get what he wanted and realize that…and be forced to realize that that’s not actually what he needed. And it just naturally set up a way so that I can sort of subvert expectations.
But for me, that came from not me trying to be cute with the structure or anything, it came from knowing what my theme and what I was actually trying to say was, which was, can you look at yourself in the mirror and have respect for yourself, or do you need other people to do it for you? And if you need other people to do it for you, then it’s an endless game of trying to get more clout, basically.
Chang Can Dunk hits Disney+ on March 10.
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