‘Chang Can Dunk’ Characters & Themes, Explained: A Relatable Commentary On Friendship, Family & Fame


“Chang Can Dunk” follows Chang, who is a huge basketball fan but has never played for his high school team. He lives with his mother, Chen, who is a medical professional. His best friend is Bo. Matt used to be his best friend when they were younger. But they’ve drifted apart because Matt became popular and Chang didn’t. When Kristy joins Cresthill High School, Chang sees that as an opportunity to achieve one of his many aspirations (i.e., having a girlfriend). However, Matt comes in between him and Kristy. Since Chang thinks that Matt has a better chance of being Kristy’s boyfriend due to his basketball skills, he decides to prove that Matt isn’t anything special because anyone can perform a slam dunk. Matt accepts the bet, and Chang apparently wins by dunking the ball into the hoop. Chang does gain popularity and becomes Kristy’s boyfriend. That said, when it’s revealed that he has cheated and he can’t actually dunk, Chang is forced to learn how to win fair and square. This educational journey features themes of family, friendship, and fame. So, let’s talk about them.

Major Spoilers Ahead

‘Chang Can Dunk’ Highlights The Importance Of Friends Who Actually Love You.

Chang and Matt’s friendship is integral to the story, but a lot of it has apparently happened off-screen. It’s not just a case of casually drifting apart over time. There’s a very clear race and class angle here. Matt is evidently from an affluent family, and that affluence has everything to do with their race. Meanwhile, Chang is Asian-American, and they’re just making ends meet. Now, class differences caused by systemic inequality don’t make their way into friendships when we are young. But as we grow older and we start to identify why we are not mingling in the same circles or are not able to afford the same things, it starts to have an impact. Something like this must’ve happened between Chang and Matt because Chang quite literally addresses that while Matt is too oblivious about his privilege. However, we see that there’s room for improvement after Matt makes it clear that he isn’t racist, and Chang admits that it was wrong for him to cheat and physically assault Matt for telling the truth.

While Chang and Matt’s dynamic is complicated, to say the least, he has a very comfortable repertoire with Bo, Kristy, and his mentor Deandre. He clearly loves these three people, and these three people love him back. But as soon as Chang gets a taste of success, he leaves them hanging in the lobby of the NBA party he was invited. That’s not the worst part, though. The worst part is that he betrays them by making them think that he has won the bet against Matt without cheating. Chang breaks their trust and faith in him. All that for what? Fifteen minutes of fame? Chang’s belief that his friends will look down upon him or entirely leave him if he fails to dunk is a mark of disrespect towards their loyalty to him. Because true friends aren’t impressed by your materialistic success, they love you for who you are. They want you to be a better person. Success, fame, etc.—all those things are secondary. A true friend will celebrate your achievement, and they’ll be with you even if you achieve nothing. That’s what Bo, Kristy, and Deandre are, and thankfully, Chang realizes that.

The Film Explicitly Shows The Dark Side Of Social Media Success.

I am sure you’ve all heard of the term “internet famous” because that’s what most famous people nowadays are, and that’s what most people aim to be. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok have taught us that being judged by millions of strangers is much better than loving yourself or being loved by those who are closest to you in real life. These social media platforms don’t mention, though, that this attention can be short-lived. Because while the architects of what should trend on the internet are teaching you that these anonymous people are your only source of validation, they’re also keeping those anonymous folks moving from one trending topic to another. So, Chang doesn’t realize that the love and adulation that he’s getting are only temporary. As soon as he slips up, he’s going to be hated, and then he’ll be forgotten. And that change happens so fast that it creates an endless craving for attention that can never be fulfilled. That’s why one should never aim to be internet famous. They should aim to be good at what they love so that they can be known and loved for their expertise.

Despite being a fan of the late Kobe Bryant, who achieved success and fame with his skills and not because of the internet, Chang doesn’t understand the difference between going viral and becoming famous because of his talent. In addition to that, he doesn’t understand the difference between viral fame and fame because he’s a meme. If someone is a meme but they are talented, then they can take it all as a joke. But if they are a meme and can’t showcase their talent on live television, they are the subject of ridicule. That’s why when Chang exits the party, the people don’t refer to him as the person who has the ability to dunk despite being five feet, eight inches. Well, some of them do. However, most of them want to take a picture with him or party with him so that they can associate their name with a walking, talking meme. Yes, there are people who are satisfied with that kind of fame. They are okay with being the joke of the day and making a fool of themselves to stay in the limelight. If you don’t have that mindset, then it’ll be better for you to stay away from the allure of that sort of reputation.

It Subtly Depicts The Difference Between White And Asian-American Households.

As mentioned before, the economic disparity due to the color of one’s skin isn’t explicitly stated through the dialogue, but it’s apparent due to the characterization and the setting in which the characters live. Matt can throw a pool party where high schoolers can have drinks and do all kinds of extracurricular activities, if you know what I mean, and the parents won’t even raise an eyebrow. It’s not a morality thing. It’s more of a status thing. Because if your White son cannot throw a party in a White neighborhood, are you White enough? At the same time, when an Asian-American kid is out for too long and isn’t responding to his mother’s calls, then it’s a big issue. This difference in treatment is also evident when a parent has to compliment or defend their child. A parent of Asian origin is never going to stand up for their child because, according to them, if something has gone wrong, their child is definitely to blame, and they’ve got to be apologetic about it. I am speaking from experience. On the flip side, a White parent’s kid can do no wrong, and everyone else is to blame.

This difference in attitude is usually a generational thing. In White households, there is a “friendly” bond between a parent and a child. Asian households have a warden-prisoner dynamic between a parent and a child. Yes, I am exaggerating because, as a teen, it used to feel like that. And when Chang says that he’s scared of his mother, that metaphor doesn’t sound like a stretch. As someone who isn’t a parent yet, I don’t know which is the right option and which one is wrong. Being too friendly with your child is a privilege because you know that your child won’t face any repercussions for being immature. Being too strict ensures that your child will be disciplined while hating you for being so cold. That said, I do understand that economic and personal issues also factor into this approach to parenting. A privileged White family like Matt’s doesn’t have worries, while Chen has all the worries in the world. So, naturally, she can’t be affable. However, she does understand that Chang doesn’t deserve to be the victim of her mental baggage, and she immediately rectifies it by removing the physical memory of her divorced husband.

It Prioritizes Being A Good Person Over Popularity.

This is the most important theme of “Chang Can Dunk”: be good now, be popular later. Popularity at the cost of goodness is pointless. In fact, popularity at the cost of friendships with people who have never hurt you and want the best for you is meaningless. Chang wants to be popular. He wants to be good at basketball and gain popularity through that. But the purpose behind that is flawed. When Deandre asks Chang about the reason why he wants to dunk, Chang gives the appropriate answer. However, he doesn’t mention that he wants to beat Matt and win over Kristy by any means necessary. When he says that the act of dunking is going to make him special, he puts too much emphasis on the results and not the effort he has put into becoming a good basketball player. And that’s what causes his undoing. When he faces ridicule for cheating and restarts his basketball practice, his focus changes from just learning how to dunk to being a brilliant athlete. More importantly, his source of validation changes from the internet to Bo, Kristy, Deandre, and his mother because he realizes that if he’s good in their eyes, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks of him.

The reason why this is the most important message of “Chang Can Dunk” is because the access to billions of people makes us think that we’ve got to cater to all of them and that we’ve to care about what every single one of them thinks of us. Since the internet is so fickle, we try to gain that attention by hook or by crook. Now, those who don’t believe in ethics or morality can do all that and still live with themselves. But someone like Chang, who comes from a humble background, won’t be able to keep up the charade for very long. So, it’s better not to go down that dark road. And the first step towards building that kind of mindset is by prioritizing goodness over popularity. The second step is to have an inner circle of people who can give their honest opinions about what we are doing so that we don’t have to look at anonymous DMs, likes, and shares for the same. The third step is to be proficient at what we do so that we don’t doubt ourselves every step of the way. If we can do all this, we can use the internet as a source of knowledge and not as a measuring tool for success while focusing on being a good person.

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Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit loves to write about movies, television shows, short films, and basically anything that emerges from the world of entertainment. He occasionally talks to people, and judges them on the basis of their love for Edgar Wright, Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, and the best television series ever made, Dark.

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