Three years ago in Braunschweig, Germany, a celebrated South Korean dance crew gave what may be the most bizarre show in the history of hip hop. Moving to a heady mix of Daft Punk, Walter Murphy, and Richard Strauss, the 10-man troupe re-enacted 60 years of Korean history through the American art form of break dancing.
Splitting into halves on either side of the floor in preparation for battle, the crew windmilled around on the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet, jumping backward onto their forearms and springing forward in synchronized slow motion. After six minutes of hyper-athletic, acrobatic frenzy, the crew met center stage and resumed dancing in perfect unison—a united peninsula at last.
The dancers, who call themselves the Gamblerz, were defending their title as the 2004 world champions of break dancing. That competition, called the Battle of the Year, is explored at length in Benson Lee's documentary Planet B-Boy. It's only in retrospect that the Gamblerz' show comes to seem extraordinary; in the context of the film, no one bothers to comment on the fact that young Korean men are performing an idealized future history of Asian geopolitics through a dance form invented by urban blacks in the South Bronx of the 1970s. And doing it in Germany.
The Freshest Kids, another recent documentary on b-boy culture, locates the history and early evolution of the form in the black and Puerto Rican communities of the South Bronx. But 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 storied past.
Instead of the legendary Rock Steady Crew, then, we meet Phase-T, a group from the working-class suburb of Chelles, France. Phase-T includes nine solid French North Africans and one tiny white kid dubbed Lil' Kev, a freakishly talented dancer whom the others toss around like a beach ball. Sitting beside her son, Lil' Kev's mother is clearly trying to make peace with his genius. Explaining what she first thought of his new friends in hip hop, she is reduced to "Noir, noir, noir!" As he cringes beneath a cocked baseball cap, she says she no longer fears his friends or his chosen career. But she and her husband would be "very proud" if he decided to be a fireman instead.
Battle of the Year forces a post-national phenomenon into a nationalized framework. Phase-T is a team of chiefly African descent that has mastered an American art form to perform under a French flag. As charming a story of globalization as that might be, there is something profoundly incongruous about performing as individualized an art as break dancing 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."
For some, the duties of nationality are not so easily dismissed. The South Korean crews (there are two in competition, because Gamblerz got a pass for winning in 2004) will have to serve two required 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. "You lose everything you work for when you go to the army," explains a member of Gamblerz. Adds another: "So we are willing to take it to the extreme before we go."
B-Boy Joe, the leader of the Korean underdog team Last for One, is unlikely to get much sympathy from his working-class father, who toils as a flag distributor for the Korean government "to help establish our national identity." And despite the sacrifices they'll be forced to make, his crew receives little love from the nation-state. Last for One's dancers, some of whom are extremely poor, feel dismissed and ignored by a Korea that fails to recognize their abilities as dancers or commercial viability as entertainers.
Joe's father is deeply worried about his son's financial prospects; an American crew member's father, by contrast, simply advises him to "rip that shit." The locus of American break dancing has shifted to Las Vegas, and most of the crew is Hispanic. They too feel the pull of patriotic pride, and their relationship to national identity is no less complex. No one seems to register any dissonance when one of them argues that "we created this thing" and "it's time to bring it back to the U.S," nor should they. Southwestern descendents of Hispanic immigrants are defending the mantle of a culture developed by blacks in the Bronx of the '70s, and it makes a kind of sense.
Like any populist dance film, Planet B-Boy ends with a dance-off, and at the film's climax we watch 20 or so nations fling themselves across a stage in tightly choreographed interpretations of American street battle. Clearly, Americans no longer own the dance. Some of the most poignant moments of the film come as the Gamblerz 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 "a different feel," he explains. "Hopefully the judges don't just want to see…some amazing shit."
Both Korean teams wow the crowd. Cho's crew finally earns some commercial viability, and in the film's last scenes, the team is flipping its way through shows in front of Korean crowds, at the World Cup, and—improbably—in a commercial for Korean tourism.
Planet B-Boy starts out as a film about the post-national flag of hip hop, but its avatars are too adaptive to let a tidy narrative of global unity win the day. In the end, they manage to stretch the boundaries of old identities, finding room for a bastardized version of an American ghetto art form in the very definition of contemporary Korean culture.
It's surely possible to argue that a once-defiant cultural genre is really and truly dead when it has been vetted by the Korean tourism board. Ken Swift, New York's most legendary b-boy, would beg to differ. "The Koreans right now are spawning new superhero killers," he says. "They're just inspiring a lot of people to go ridiculously crazy." When the old moves go stale, new ones emerge. There will be more b-boys, from more cultures, to dream up new rules in post-national street battles to come.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor at reason.