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Arts & Culture

Planet B-Boy

B-boying, we're told, is the term for the urban dance more commonly known as breakdancing. In the opening minutes of his film Planet B-Boy , filmmaker Benson Lee tries to give viewers a history of breakdancing. He informs us that while most people remember breakdancing as a pop culture fad made popular in the 80s by films like Flashdance, Beatstreet, and Breakin ', it was born on the streets of the South Bronx, and was originally known as "b-boying" and as a crucial element of hip-hop culture, along with graffiti, DJing and emceeing. Lee also points out the influences of Asian martial arts films, gymnastics, and just a little of James Brown.

After this brief history lesson, Lee shows us how far the dance has come by focusing on what's know as the Battle of the Year, a competition that takes place in Germany and that celebrates the best b-boying around the globe with eighteen countries each sending a team. Lee highlights the teams with the best chances of winning the event - Japan, South Korea, France and the US. Lee mixes footage of the competition with interviews and staged dance shots to try and get at what makes b-boying what it is.

Lee's interviews tend to be short and not too deep but he has a keen eye for capturing small telling moments. Lee interviews one Japanese dancer with his wife in the frame next to him. The dancer explains he's broke and just quit his job to go to Germany, and he concludes that he's the worst dad in the world. The look his wife gives to the camera speaks volumes about their relationship and about his passion for dance superceding everything else. Similarly, a Korean dad, seated next to his breakdancing son, expresses his wish that his son were a doctor or lawyer who could contribute to society, and the son's body language reveals the weight of that pressure and his desire to rebel against it while still wanting to please his father. Then in another scene, a French mother says of her diminutive blonde b-boying son, "I'd be proud if he were a fireman," to which the son simply says, "Get over it." She also confesses to racist ideas about what breakdancing was which seems to shock her son. All these moments reveal a lot about the dancers and the world they live in.


The interviews give brief insights into the dancers and a context for their dancing, but what this film is really about is the b-boying. These dancers are jaw-droppingly amazing and it's a shame that Lee never serves up a single dance number in its entirety. Much of the footage of the competition seems shot from a single camera from the perspective of being out in the audience. The angle takes in all the action but doesn't showcase the dance effectively. The routines are so tantalizingly good that we want more and we want to see it all.

But Lee does stage some striking dance shots. He sets up each country by shooting the dancers in their homeland and against very iconic imagery. So in France we get a breakdancer in front of the Eiffel Tower and in Vegas we get both the desert and then the Strip as backdrops. Most effectively - and maybe because Lee is a Korean American - is some b-boying at the 39th Parallel with South Korean dancers tearing it up at the DMZ. The scene is particularly effective since all the South Korean dancers will be serving a mandatory term in the military very shortly.

These dances, which seem staged specifically for the film, are great but it's the competition footage that we want to see more of and to see shot better. But the glimpses we get of the elaborate choreography of the Japanese, the strength of the South Koreans, and the fluidity of the French are dazzling. Yet it's frustrating when Lee shows us a snippet of the Japanese team in competition in 2005, and a title tells us this was possibly the best performance ever. What a tease to say that and not show the whole routine (maybe the reason is that good footage simply doesn't exist).

Since Lee focuses on the Battle of the Year, it's just a shame that the footage of that event is the most static, least well lit and shot most plainly. Lee still captures the essence of the dance and gravity-defying skills required to execute some of the routines. So although the film leaves me wanting more, I applaud Lee for at least committing this much material to film for a wider audience to appreciate. One final observation, it's distracting to have to read subtitles during so many sequences with dance footage. Having to read the subtitles made me feel like I was missing too much of the dancing.

Planet B-Boy (unrated) is all about the beauty of the body in motion. Film is meant to capture movement and there's nothing like the rush you get from the kinetic energy of a great martial arts action film or a Twyla Tharp dance number or these amazing b-boys. So while I might complain about some of Lee's filmmaking choices, I feel nothing but wonder and delight at seeing these dancers excel at something they love so passionately. Planet B-Boy is an exhilarating film that celebrates this youth created dance.


Companion viewing: Flashdance, Rize, Mad Hot Ballroom, Strictly Ballroom, Hair (for Twyla Tharp's choreography)