May 14, 2008 - 9:25 PM
"Planet B-Boy" director Benson Lee
Stills from "Planet B-Boy":
Break dancing, once the hallmark of underground urban culture born on the streets of New York and thought to be merely a passing fad of the 80s, is alive and well, even if its influence in the United States has dwindled in the past two decades (though being resurrected by that America’s Best Dance Crew or whatever that show is called). But the spastic dance cousin of hip hop has exploded onto the world stage of pop culture, with rabid fans and b-boy crews coming from every corner of the globe to converge in Germany (of all places) for the world championship of break dancing.
The craze is captured in Benson Lee's thrilling new documentary "Planet B-Boy," which won the award for Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and opened last month at select theaters nationwide. Lee's film is more than a documentary on a dance form. He follows five b-boy crews from around the world as they not only compete for a prize and bragging rights, but deal with issues of family and societal acceptance. These individual stories and dramas are just as compelling as the mind-bending spastic contortions that these dancers throw themselves into.
Case in point: Two crews from South Korea—one the previous world champions; the other, young upstarts from the countryside—face pressure to conform to rigid societal norms that are common in Korea. Add to that stress the inevitability of conscription (Korea is still technically at war, so all young men must serve two years in the armed forces) and what you get are explosive dance performances that thrill and shock the senses.
Lee, a Korean American independent film director, had loved break-dancing as a kid. Films like "Wild Style," "Beat Street" and "Breakin'" (don't forget “Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo") spawned a generation of dancers. It also created a wave of schlock consumerist garbage. Remember those old TV ads for the Alfonso Ribeiro instructional video, complete with booklet, factsheet on rapping, and your own board to breakdance on? It even had a picture of his face on the corner of it. But when the 80s were over, break-dancing in America was largely relegated to the dustbin of 80s nostalgia.
"Back in the 80s, I was one of those kids who saw the movies and just had to try it right away, but at the time I didn't really have a community of b-boys around me, so I was more of a closeted break dancer. I wasn't very good, of course. I was just playing in the mirror slow-mo and just trying to emulate the moves, but I was completely mesmerized by the dance," Lee said during the SFIAAFF. "And then it just died all of a sudden. They stopped making the movies, so I went off and became a filmmaker."
His interest in the project, as well as his love of break-dancing, was rekindled a decade later after watching "Flashdance." (Keep your eyes open for an incredible homage to “Flashdance” filmed in Osaka). After wondering where break-dancing had gone, Lee searched the Web only to find out that it had exploded in other parts of the world. "It was called b-boying, first of all. I never even knew that. And secondly, that it was all around the world."
It was during these searches that he found out about the "Battle of the Year," which, according to Lee is "basically the World Cup of B-Boying." He promptly bought all of the video highlights that were available. The 1998 championship tape featured The Family from France and Rock Force Crew from right here in the Bay Area.
"It was just one of the nastiest battles I had ever seen," Lee recalled. "I had never seen it that raw and dirty."
Much of the film is shot on location in Osaka, Tokyo, Paris, Las Vegas, Seoul and Braunschweig, Germany, where the championship is held. There is an incredible dance sequence filmed at a mock-up of the famous border station at Panmunjeom—in front of the guardhouse where the cease-fire was signed in 1953, on the border between North and South Korea—where dancers dressed as guards from each side stare coldly at each other only to explode into a dance routine that at times literally defies gravity. It looked like they were really dancing on the border, but Lee said it was filmed on a set created for an earlier film.
"Otherwise, we'd have four dead b-boys," Lee laughed.
It was the surprise placement of these upstarts in the competition that gave Lee the story he needed to pursue this film. How did a country, who had only recently been exposed to hip hop culture on a wide scale, become so strong at b-boying?
"One reason that I wanted to make the doc., is that the Koreans just came out of nowhere," Lee said. "Traditionally when a new country is added to the event, they always end up in last, or second to last place, because they're so new. But when the Koreans came in 2001, they came in second. And everyone was like 'Who are the Koreans?'"
One of the compelling storylines in this film is the struggle that young South Korean men face when they turn conscription age. If you take a break, you lose all your skills; and dancing is not allowed in the Korean army. Hip hop is also considered subversive in conservative South Korea. But the drive and spirit of these young dancers, and their choice of artistic outlet, breeds fans from different levels of society. Each country "brings a little bit of their own heritage" into the dance.
The dancers in this film, along with their mind-bending physical feats, should put to rest any talk that b-boying isn’t a legitimate form of art or expression.
"Planet B Boy" is currently touring the U.S. To find a screening near you, or video clips from the film, visit www.planetbboy.com.
James Woodard is a freelance writer, and a reporter, editor and photographer for the Hokubei Mainichi, a daily bilingual Japanese American newspaper in San Francisco. He lives in the "Baghdad by the Bay": Oakland.