Thursday, April 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Chang Can Dunk’ Is a Total Slam Dunk

Director: Jingyi Shao

Writer: Jingyi Shao

Stars: Bloom Li, Ben Wang, Zoe Renee, and Dexter Darden. 

Synopsis: A young Asian-American teen and basketball fanatic who just wants to dunk and get the girl ends up learning much more about himself, his best friends, and his mother.

I am missing the days of Disney sports movies released theatrically. The last one, McFarland, USA, was not that great. Akin Omotoso’s Rise was serviceable, but didn’t reach the heights of films like Cool Runnings, The Mighty Ducks, Remember the Titans, Miracle, and Glory Road. Disney’s latest sports film, Chang Can Dunk, isn’t necessarily about the sport itself (Basketball), but about the artistic process behind creating a public figure. As such, it’s one of Disney’s most exciting films released on Disney+ and should be seen immediately. 

The story is simple: Chang (Bloom Li) is an aspiring basketball player who unfortunately lives under the shadow of a better athlete and former friend, Matt (Chase Liefeld). Their rivalry is as textbook “high-school comedy” as it gets, but that’s not what you should focus on. Chang is great at basketball but can’t dunk. Matt challenges Chang to perform a dunk at a party in eleven weeks. If he does, the winner shaves the opponent’s head and claims either a rare Pokémon card or a framed poster of the late Kobe Bryant’s jersey. 

Chang enlists the help of basketball coach Deandre (Dexter Darden), who will use him to grow subscribers on his YouTube channel with the aid of Chang’s best friend and aspiring filmmaker Bo (Ben Wang), who adopts a Michael Bay aesthetic as he directs videos with a DJI phone Steadicam, a robocam, and a drone. And that’s where Chang Can Dunk truly soars. When you hear the line “You want Michael Bay? I’ll get you Michael Benjamin Bay.” and the movie immediately cuts to a low-angle, desaturated shot of Deandre walking out of his car, with an explosion in the background and fighter jets flying overhead, you know you’re about to watch something incredible. 

When Chang Can Dunk focuses on the sport itself and Chang’s connection with the dunk, it’s not that interesting. The romance involving him and Kristy (Zoe Renee) is incredibly clichéd, just like his relationship with his mother (Mardy Ma) that you’ve all seen before. When the film focuses on filmmaking and experiments with different techniques, including emulating Bayhem, frequently changing aspect ratios to convey emotional weight, and using animation to understand Chang’s transformations from Chang 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0, it’s incredible. 

Rarely do we see a Disney film nowadays with such assured technical skill. Most Disney movies look like corporate-made slop without an ounce of visual creativity behind them. Chang Can Dunk has an ultra-dynamic visual style, and it’s not afraid of crafting intricate visual comedy and scenes that require a true mastery of the camera. More reason why this should’ve been a theatrical release. Would it make as much money as, say, The Little Mermaid? Probably not, but at least it could’ve made a considerable amount and shown younger audiences how fun movies can be when the filmmakers (and actors) are having a blast. 

The middle section of the film is a bit rough, but talking about it would require spoiling the moment of the dunk, which is very exciting. Writer/director Jingyi Shao does a great job visually representing a rather powerful and cathartic moment that is the centerpiece for what’s to come next, though talking about it would rob you of the experience to see it for yourself. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s a total slam dunk. Don’t hesitate on seeing Chang Can Dunk. If there’s one March basketball film to watch this month, it’s this one. 

Grade: A-


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