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Planet B-Boy

(2008) *** 1/2 Unrated
98 min. Elephant Eye Films. Director: Benson K. Lee.

In a time when Step Up 2: The Streets is the norm, it's refreshing to get a film that skips the bullshit clichés and gets right down to the dancing. Of course, to achieve such results takes a documentary approach (or, well, artistry, but that's another story). So we can count our blessings that breakdance gets a proper showcase in Benson Lee's Planet B-Boy, an unexpectedly rousing exploration of an art form and the men who devote mind, body, and soul to it.

Lee begins by breaking down hip-hop culture and paying brief homage to the pioneers of the 1980s, young men who were simultaneously showcased and used as human window dressing in Flashdance. Using as a bridge testimonials to the widespread international influence of the breaking in Flashdance, Lee moves on to the film's proper subject. Planet B-Boy focuses on the recent history of the German-hosted "Battle of the Year" competition, an international showcase since 1990. Lee wisely singles out b-boy crews from Japan, France, Korea, and America, following them around their natural habitats and sticking by their sides during the 2005 "Battle of the Year."

In a trajectory similar to the sport of skateboarding, breaking has teetered in societal status from underground art to fad to underground art to a commercial commodity for the top breakers. These days, the team that wins "Battle of the Year" not only experiences swells of personal, team and national pride, but also fields lucrative offers for showcase performances and commercial work. Naturally, the event sees international tensions—part of the competition involves direct dance battles with a maximum of attitude—but we also see positive vibes and social work. (It would be nice to see routines with less interruption, but one begins to suspect that's part of an access trade-off: wouldn't want to threaten sales of "Battle of the Year"'s official DVDs...)

A Japanese breaker ruefully recalls a well-known national proverb: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Planet B-Boy—a selection of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival—explores in depth the character of the Eastern father-son relationship. Representative pairs demonstrate, in relief, two common issues for breakers: the tightly guarded masculinity that prevents freely shared emotion, and the tentative detentes dependent on young breakers proving they can make money at the sport. As such, the film's lasting impressions are of an independent generation's struggle to be understood by parents, the ravenous hunger to be affirmed as a champion, and the phenomenal creativity, skill, and athleticism of breaking.

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