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How the slam dunk became this director's metaphor for the Asian American experience

Director Jingyi Shao arrives for the launch event of Disney's <em>Chang Can Dunk</em>.
AFP via Getty Images
Director Jingyi Shao arrives for the launch event of Disney's Chang Can Dunk.

When is a dunk more than a dunk? When it's wrapped up in proving yourself to your entire high school.

Who are they? Jingyi Shao is a writer and director, whose latest project is the Disney film, Chang Can Dunk.

  • The story follows Bernard Chang, a 5-foot-8-inch high schooler in the marching band, who makes a bet with his school's top jock that in just 12 weeks, he'll be able to dunk a basketball.
  • Chang's mission to prove himself to his peers and subvert their expectations is one that is personal to Shao. He says the inspiration for the film and many of the themes are drawn from his own experiences growing up in New Jersey.
  • What's the big deal? Though the premise is pretty straightforward, the plot touches on many elements others may identify with: Chang trying to earn the respect of his peers as an Asian American and novice athlete; struggling to gain his single immigrant mother's understanding; and believing in himself enough to achieve his goal.

  • Shao explains how representation is intertwined with self-perception: "Watching this film, if you're an Asian American or if you're another person who's a minority, there's another layer to that. When people watch this film, I want them to think about their own self-perception, because I think that is almost as important as other people's perceptions of you. I think that stereotypes are really powerful because we're scared that they might be true."  
  • It's also another story focused on providing a new perspective on the Asian immigrant experience in the United States, hot on the trail of the groundbreaking Everything Everywhere All At Once Oscars sweep.
  • In 2021, USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published a study that analyzed 1,300 films from 2007-2019. The results showed that from 51,159 speaking characters, just 5.9% of them were Asian or Pacific Islanders.  

  • Want to hear more from Shao? Listen to the NPR interview by clicking or tapping the play button at the top.

    (From left) Zoey Renee as Kristy, Bloom Li as Chang, Dexter Darden as DeAndre, and Ben Wang as Bo in "Chang Can Dunk."
    Stephanie Mei-Ling / Stephanie Mei-Ling
    Stephanie Mei-Ling
    (From left) Zoey Renee as Kristy, Bloom Li as Chang, Dexter Darden as DeAndre, and Ben Wang as Bo in "Chang Can Dunk."

    What are they saying? Shao spoke to NPR's Ailsa Chang (who insists that she cannot dunk) about the process of making the film.

    On the significance of ~the dunk~

    From a screenwriter's perspective, you're always looking for a metaphor that's really simple and also universal. I mean, everyone that walks by a hoop wants to dunk. And the dunk is such a powerful,  top three sports move. There's a home run, there's a knockout in boxing, and then there's the slam dunk.  And it's like [an] athletic feat. It's not something a lot of people can do. And it brings all the attention to that person and it riles up the crowd. 

    And when I saw that, I think all these questions of Asian Americans coming into our own, discovering ourselves, trying to fulfill our dreams and reaching for this goal with all these obstacles in the way, the dunk seems to be just a super simple metaphor. Yeah, it's 10 feet, it's there, you jump up and you do it or you don't. But at the same time, you're weighed down by invisible things.

    On his own relationship to the story:

    When I create stories, I try to relate it to personal experience. And so Chang is Asian because I'm Asian. Growing up, I tried my hardest not to think of things that way. I tried to convince myself that I was just me and race didn't matter. But at a certain point, you do come across these things that people perceive of you, and you're running up against these barriers and you're trying to prove them wrong in different ways, not just to everyone else, but to yourself. So for this character to be Asian, I think that the whole thing of trying to disprove other people's beliefs of you, or you're trying to be cooler in school, is a universal thing.

    So, what now?

  • Shao recalls watching sports movies growing up, and never quite identifying with the challenges faced by the protagonists. He hopes that his film will create space for kids who grew up like him.  
  • Chang Can Dunk is available to stream on Disney Plus. 
  • Read more:

  • Michelle Yeoh called out sexism in Hollywood. Will it help close the gender gap?   
  • The Oscar for 'Naatu Naatu' fans the impossible dreams of India's musicians 
  • 'Return to Seoul' is a funny, melancholy film that will surprise you start to finish 
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.