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Rachel Levin
L.A. Pulse
Movie Reviews
Break Dance

Planet B-Boy – A Documentary Film by Benson Lee

by Rachel Levin
May 13, 2008
Of hip hop culture's original four elements—graffiti, DJing, emceeing, and b-boying—the element that seemed to burn out far too quickly was b-boying, also known as breakdancing, the gravity-defying street dance hatched in the South Bronx in the 1970s. Its pinnacle of exposure came in the early 80s, when it became a media sensation through films like Flashdance. As it turns out, b-boying was the first hip hop export; it reached an international audience even before the music did. In America, however, breakdance became so sensationalized that it fell from grace, and hip hop music supplanted dance as the foremost hip hop element in America.

Yet even as b-boying went underground in the U.S., it exploded on an international level. Benson Lee's poignant film "Planet B-Boy" examines breakdance's influence on young people in the farthest corners of the globe over the past two decades. The documentary follows five b-boy crews from America, France, Japan, and South Korea as they prepare to compete in the granddaddy of international breakdance competitions, the Battle of the Year. Started in 1990 and held annually in Branschweig, Germany, the competition crowns the best crew—culled from elimination rounds in 23 countries—in front of 50,000 live spectators.

Lee visits each crew's home city, from Osaka to Paris, Seoul, and Las Vegas, and embeds himself with the dancers as they prepare for competition. It becomes clear that for all involved, b-boying is a good deal more than just a dance. For many of the dancers, especially those abroad, b-boying has imparted a life-changing worldview through its emphasis on self-discovery and expression of emotion and individual style. In Japan, where society stresses homogenization, one of the dancers known as Quik explains, "After I started breakdancing, I became more aware of my identity and more open to other ways of thinking." His compatriot, Catcher agrees: "The reason I dance is to explode and feel free."

In South Korea, where conscription for all men is mandatory due to the ongoing tension with North Korea, the freedom that b-boying offers is even more pronounced. As one of the Korean dancers explains, "Dancing is not allowed in the army. Period." To illustrate the power of breakdancing to offer a sense of relative freedom despite such limited options, Lee shoots a poignant scene in which one of the Korean crews dances in military garb on the fabled 38th parallel dividing north from south.

In the North African immigrant suburbs of Paris, b-boying transcends any sort of national identity. As one French dancer explains, in the polyglot, multilingual society of urban France, "Our flag is hip hop." And in the cultural circus of Las Vegas, an American b-boy crew finds something spiritual in the dance that they just can't let go of. Lee's shot of one of the Las Vegas dancers breaking on the street in front of the New York New York casino captures the irony of breakdance being exported beyond its New York street origins. Yet, wherever it goes, b-boying maintains a sense of authenticity because each of these dancers interprets the moves and the attitude through his own individuality and sensibility.

The passion these men (there is only one female b-girl featured in the film) have for b-boying is palpable. Many of them, especially those in South Korea, come from poor families and in some cases extreme poverty. Still others face stern parental disapproval or family prejudice. Yet despite financial and social challenges, they remain fanatical about b-boying as a vital outlet for self-expression. The dancing at the Battle of the Year is of course phenomenal, and the death-defying power moves are really something to see (as one person puts it, the Korean crews are "inspiring a lot of people to go ridiculously crazy"). But the heart of the film is its emotional center and its message about the vast reach of hip hop's ingenuity. In the new world order of globalization, b-boying is one export we can be proud of.

For more information and photos, visit www.planetbboy.com
A Parisian B-Boy

A Parisian B-Boy

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown

A Japanese B-Boy

A Japanese B-Boy

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown

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