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'Chang Can Dunk' is the coming-of-age sports film Jingyi Shao wished for as a kid

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a new movie that I love called "Chang Can Dunk." It's not about me. I mean, believe me, this Chang cannot dunk. I will never be able to dunk. But Bernard Chang is this 5-foot-8, 16-year-old in the marching band who makes a bet with his high school's top jock that in only 12 weeks, he too will be able to dunk a basketball.

JINGYI SHAO: You know, from a screenwriter's perspective, you're always looking for, like, a metaphor that's really simple and also universal. And the dunk is such a powerful - I mean, it's, like, top-three sports moves. Like, there's a home run. There's the knockout in boxing. And then there's the slam dunk.

CHANG: Jingyi Shao wrote and directed "Chang Can Dunk," now streaming on Disney+. His title character attacks his singular goal with obsessive focus, waking up at the crack of dawn every day with a dunking coach.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHANG CAN DUNK")

DEXTER DARDEN: (As Deandre) When you take off, I want you to think about destroying the ground and jumping for the sky. Destroy the ground, and jump to the sky.

CHANG: And all the while, Chang's mom, an immigrant and single parent, watches this quest with frustrated confusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHANG CAN DUNK")

MARDY MA: (As Chen) Why dunking? What can you do with this dunking thing?

DARDEN: (As Deandre) I don't know. But that's what he wanted to do.

CHANG: Filmmaker Jingyi Shao told me he based so much of his main character around his own personal experiences as a teenager. Did I read that you were a teenager in the 1990s like I was?

SHAO: (Laughter) Yes, the late 1990s. Yes, I was...

CHANG: Aw, you're trying to...

SHAO: (Laughter) Yeah.

CHANG: ...You're trying to make me feel not old. I love that. That's so sweet of you. Well, let me ask you, what would it have been like for you to see a movie back when you were growing up as a teenager that starred an Asian teenager? Would that have made a difference to you?

SHAO: It would have meant everything to me, you know? My parents are immigrants. And, you know...

CHANG: From where?

SHAO: From China.

CHANG: Yeah. Where in China?

SHAO: Yeah, I'm actually an immigrant myself. I was born in Shanghai, and I came over...

CHANG: Oh, I didn't realize that.

SHAO: ...When I was a baby. But so I consider myself a second generation. And I think that, like, what's tough for, like, immigrant kids, is you can't go to your parents sometimes for advice on how to, like, fit in in American high school.

CHANG: Exactly.

SHAO: I mean, my parents grew up in, you know, Communist China. They were in the cultural revolution. My dad didn't go to high school because he was, you know, sent to the countryside. So he doesn't even know what high school is. You know what I mean?

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAO: So for him to try and guide me through high school was really tough. You know, like...

CHANG: It's a guessing game.

SHAO: ...How is he going to know what I'm supposed to wear to prom?

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHAO: You know what I mean?

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHAO: You know what I mean? I'm like, Dad, I need to look cool, OK? This is my one chance. And then...

CHANG: Oh, I would never take...

SHAO: ...He's like...

CHANG: ...Fashion advice from my parents.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAO: You know what I mean? He's like, why do you have to get a flower in this plastic? Anyway, what happens, I think, is you search for how to do that through media. Like, how do I how become cool? Believe it or not, I loved sports coming-of-age films.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: No way (laughter).

SHAO: And you know, these underdog kids who I saw myself in...

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAO: ...Would strive, and they would prove to their peers that they were worthy. But in those stories, like, they always had a supportive - parents who understood, right? Who could see what the kid was going through. And, you know, my relationship with my family has evolved a lot. But...

CHANG: Same.

SHAO: ...It would hurt sometimes when I watch those films, and I'm like, oh, why isn't my family like that?

CHANG: Just as supportive.

SHAO: Exactly, or support me in the way that I really wanted them to...

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAO: ...You know?

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAO: And so to have seen a film like this, and just to know that this kind of family exists, that it's OK that your evolution is part of your family's evolution would have been so much to me.

CHANG: Your movie gets at this idea that a lot of teenagers have - I mean, heck, a lot of adults have. And that idea is if I can just do this one thing, be this one way, my life will be magically better. And then you realize later on in life, feeling seen isn't about that. It isn't about just achieving like that one thing...

SHAO: No.

CHANG: ...Is it?

SHAO: No. I mean, I think when you make your goals really achievement based, it becomes about other people's perceptions of you. And you can never control that.

CHANG: A hundred percent.

SHAO: You can never control it. And some people will never give that to you because that's how they wield their power over you, you know? And that's a lesson that I've had, you know, chasing my dreams and trying to become a filmmaker. And it wasn't until I really sort of - looking inside and becoming confident in my own voice that I felt like I could really reach for the goals...

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAO: ...And get closer to those goals. And I noticed a huge difference when that happened.

CHANG: And what you're saying is such a universal message. But I was wondering in watching this movie, was there also something culturally specific about this? - because, I mean, I don't know if you were raised by tiger parents like I was, but there were definitely times I was told by my parents, if you just get into these schools, get these awards, you will have a better life. Just do these key things. Did you get that kind of pressure from your parents?

SHAO: I didn't get a lot of like, we want you to go to an Ivy League. We want you to, like, get a great job. You know what I'm saying? But at the same time, I think my parents were very open-minded and observant of me. And they could tell when I was motivated and when I wasn't motivated. And, you know, I give a lot of credit especially to my father. He told me this recently, actually. He told me that he wanted to make sure that he didn't treat me the way that his father treated him.

CHANG: Wow.

SHAO: And I think that made him more open to the things that I was curious about - 'cause you could tell. When I was really into something, I was really, really into it. And a lot of Asian Americans struggle to convince their parents to allow them to go into, like, a creative or artistic field. And I was really, really nervous when I told him.

CHANG: That you wanted to be a filmmaker.

SHAO: That I wanted to be a filmmaker. 'Cause I was at NYU, I was about to graduate, you know? And he was really supportive. So...

CHANG: You're so lucky.

SHAO: Yeah. Shoutout to my dad. No...

CHANG: That's beautiful.

SHAO: ...For sure.

CHANG: Well, I was so moved, and somewhat triggered, when watching Chang's fraught relationship with his mom - all the expectations that he felt from her, but also all the hope and desire to protect that she felt towards him. And without giving anything away, where did you want to see their relationship land by the end of the movie?

SHAO: That relationship - I could talk all day about that relationship, 'cause that was very, very much inspired by, you know, how my relationship with my own mother has evolved over time. And one of the breakthroughs I had while writing the script and thinking about my high school years was the fact that I realized that my mom was going through a lot of the same things that I was actually going through in high school. So my mom was studying in community college. Everyone would be younger than her. Her English wouldn't be that great. She was - she definitely had trouble fitting in. And that was kind of like my experience in high school.

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAO: And we would have all these frustrations, and we'd come home and then totally not see that in each other. As a younger person, I was like, I wish my mom could see and understand me. But as a more mature adult, I try and see and understand my mom. And I think that's what happens towards the end of the film, is that Chang's mom takes a step towards understanding her son. And as a result, her son takes a step towards understanding her. It has to be a two-way street for that.

CHANG: Well, as much as your movie is such a feel-good movie - I want to thank you - I cried a lot because it hit home so deeply for me, and...

SHAO: That means so much to me.

CHANG: ...I loved it.

SHAO: Thank you.

CHANG: Jingyi Shao wrote and directed the new movie "Chang Can Dunk." It was really awesome to talk to you. Thanks for coming in.

SHAO: Thank you. This was absolutely wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE OF PAIN SONG, "JUMP AROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kai McNamee