Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Yeah, Seen it (Even though I haven't)

Via Reason Online, news of a potentially interesting movie. It's called Planet B-Boy, and it's a documentary about a break-dancing competition in Germany. Not that I'm a fan, but impressive is impressive, and breakdancing is nothing if not impressive. Still, it seems like an odd choice for a documentary these days - an even odder choice to be gracing the pages of Reason. What's the catch?

My first whiff of a rat came with this line:

The term b-boy identifies hip-hop-obsessed dancers who have devoted themselves to breakdancing. Today, that word holds currency in a number of languages, and Benson Lee's Planet B-Boy follows French, Japanese, Korean and American dance crews from their home countries to a global competition in Braunshweig, Germany.

B-boy? The term so famous I've never heard it. Sounds like J-Pop to me. Wasn't there some mention of Koreans and Japanese b-boys?

Lee is less interested in where that culture came from than where it has gone. New York figures only as a dusty museum for the form's history.

The director's name is Lee? And New York is a "dusty museum." Oh jeez, I think ... well, let's just say I have an idea where this is going.

Battle of the Year, the competition that grounds the film, forces a post-national phenomenon into a nationalized framework.

Yes, yes, now I'm getting surer.

As charming a story of globalization as that might be, there is something profoundly incongruous about performing as anti-authoritarian and expressive an art as breakdancing under any flag at all. That tension emerges throughout the film, as b-boys alternately embrace the competitive playbook handed them and struggle under its weight. "We can't say the phrase 'French culture' really represents us," says one of Phase-T's dancers. "Our flag is hip-hop."

And then I'm REALLY sure:

Cho Sung Gook knows something about national pride; his disapproving, working class father works as a flag distributor for the Korean government "to help establish our national identity." And for Cho's crew, Last for One, the burdens of national identity are something like a ticking clock. Each will have to serve Korea's required two years of military service, and like any athletes at the top of their form, they won't be able to simply pick up where they left off.

Christ, another Korean Korea love-in disguised as a movie about something else.

It's not that the reviewer for Reason is an idiot, or even gullible, per se. It's just that he's never lived in Korea and doesn't know first-hand how annoying they are about their ridiculous national pride. I have, and I do know, and this positively reeks of it. OF COURSE the guy's father does something patriotic. And read between the lines here: this boy Cho isn't "post national" or "feeling the burdens of national identity." He's just upset that the military doesn't recognize him as a national athlete like any other, is all. If we needed any confirmation, check out what their routine is:

The crew splits into two groups and reenacts "the history of Korea" through six minutes of b-boy battling, one side representing the South and one the North. In the end, the sides are reconciled, and the crew springs into the eerily perfect synchrony that only the Koreans seem able to pull off

Well, alright, I'm cheating. That was actually the winners from the previous year - who also happened to be Koreans (and are no doubt what attracted this Korean director to make this movie in the first place). The point stands: someone please explain to me how going to an international competition where groups are based on nation and doing a dance routine that reenacts your nation's history with an implausibly upbeat ending is possibly, in anyone's fantasy universe, "postnational?"

And now the giveaway:

Clearly, Americans no longer own the dance. Some of the most poignant moments of the film come as Korean crew perform in Germany and the camera lingers on the Vegas crew's faces. Their eyes are tinged with fear, their mouths slightly open. Afterward, one manages to offer a half-hearted pep talk. Their show is just "different," he explains, "Hopefully the judges don't just want to see 'some amazing shit.'"

Well, at least this reviewer managed to pick up on the point of the film.

The judges do want to see some amazing shit, which is why the Korean team "Last for One" emerges victorious. A first place finish at the competition at last gives Cho's crew some commercial viability, and in the film's last scenes, the crew is shown flipping its way through shows in front of Korean crowds, at the World Cup, and - improbably - in a commercial for Korean tourism.

So there you have it. This film isn't really about a competition so much as it is about the Koreans winning the competition two years in a row. And if you were wondering how a town as boring as Braunschweig, Germany (I spent a summer there) got to be the locus of the international breakdancing competition for "over two decades," you're definitely not alone. The reason there isn't any history of breakdancing in this film, one supposes, is because Korea only recently started shining. And the fact that Korea won it is the only reason anyone is filming this at all. What the reviewer thinks is a focus on the "post-national" nature of the dance is actually just an excuse to make sure that the audience is thinking about nationality the whole time. Hip-hop and breakdancing very definitely are postnational artforms. If "nationality" is playing as big a role in this as this reviewer seems to think it is, it can only be because some irritating director with a personal insecurity complex to work out injected it in.

Which isn't to say the movie isn't worth watching. I'm sure the dancing is indeed impressive. But I won't be spending money to stroke some Korean-American diector with Korean financers' childish ethnic pride fest.
In case you needed convincing, here's the director in his own words:

What makes me angry is people who are subconsciously racist, and not even aware of it. Basically, I'm a really proud angry Asian man, which is a lot like being an angry African American. The commonality being aspects of white culture, where people have certain subconscious impressions of minorities.

Fuck off. If anyone is "subconsciously racist" here, it's Lee himself, whose identity is clearly tied up with his race, and who is under the impression that only members of a certain racial category (white people - who knew?) can have negative subconscious impressions of members of other groups. I've heard this tune before, and it got boring a long time ago. Fuck off.


At 6:29 AM, Blogger Gabba said...


FYI - I am an investor in the movie and I am not Asian. Sometimes instead of looking for reasons to hate a movie you should really consider looking at the hardships people encounter to attain their goals (No matter where they are from). Being an Olympian in a low profile sport I know what these teams have had to struggle through to get to where they are. It does not matter which country wins and the fact that the Koreans do (and that the director is Korean) in no way means that he is trying to hype up his country.

Secondly (I am a white American) and I know the director - and he is as far from racist as you can get. Before you start labelling people get to know them or understand where they come from.

I don't want to hype this movie because it speaks for itself and it has a place and reason for playing in cinemas.

At 2:43 PM, Blogger Joshua said...

Gabriel -

I appreciate your comment, but I think your advice is better directed toward Lee himself. Obviously you are correct that I cannot know how racist Lee is or isn't in reality without having met him - I only have his public face to go on. The public face he puts on is this: he gives interviews to blogs called "Angry Asian" in which he describes himself as an "Angry Asian Male" and all but says that the pathology of subconscious racism is a white-only phenomenon. I'm not sure what other impression suggests itself from this than the one I formed.

As for whether he is trying to hype Korea - he himself states in one of the interviews I linked that the Korean 2nd-place finish in 2001 was the thing that inspired him to make this film in the first place.

So again, while I appreciate where you're coming from, I think it would be more effective, if you're concerned about Lee's public image, to take that subject up with him. He is, after all, the one ultimately responsible for the responses he gives in interviews.


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