An Interview with Planet B-Boy's Benson Lee

Planet B-Boy captures the world of b-boys from the streets to the world stage. APA talks to director Benson Lee about hip-hop’s global vision.

In the new documentary Planet B-Boy, director Benson Lee travels to four countries — the United States, France, Japan and South Korea — to follow the training, challenges, and trials of five b-boy teams as they prepare for the annual Battle of the Year competition in Germany. Planet B-Boy first made waves in the film festival circuit earlier this year and last month, it completed an exceptional theatrical run in more than 30 American cities. Most recently, MTV announced that it’s purchasing domestic broadcast rights to the documentary and plans to air it in early 2009.

For those who though b-boying died back around the time of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogloo in the mid-1980s, Planet B-Boy documents an art form of intense and pervasive influence around the globe, especially in Asia where teams from Japan and South Korea have become dominant. Lee recently spoke to Asia Pacific Arts about what drew him to the make the film, b-boy politics, and how South Korea hand-planted its way to top of the b-boy world.
Interview and article by Oliver Wang
Transcription by LiAnn Ishizuka

Asia Pacific Arts: I know this is a question you must field a lot but was your interest in making a movie about b-boying a reflection of any direct history you have with the art form?

Benson Lee: I was one of those kids back in the ’80s when breakdancing really exploded in pop culture in America, who saw those films and was just completely mesmerized. I grew up in the suburbs outside Philadelphia…. I was a minority and I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. For me, hip hop, and especially the dance, spoke to me that being different was cool. And I think that’s the power of hip hop: you have these kids — these rebels basically — and they’re just out there having fun.

APA: Did you get into b-boying seriously?

BL:  I never got into it professionally. I never became a true b-boy. I fell out of it, but I always loved hip-hop music. And then over ten years later, I watched Flashdance. And I asked myself, “what happened to these guys? Do people still, you know, breakdance?” That led me to go online and research it, and then I just discovered this whole world. And I literally mean “world” because, it was all around. And then I discovered the “Battle of the Year,” which is the event I covered in the film. And I was just blown away that it was this organized and that there were so many countries involved and that the skill had evolved to what it is today.

APA: What drew you want to make a movie out of all this?

BL: The cultural implications through the dance were what fascinated me the most. Korea came into the scene in 2001…out of nowhere. Normally, new countries to [Battle of the Year] always place last, but Korea came in second. And so the whole b-boy community was like, “who the hell are these Koreans? Why are they so powerful?” They were powerful from the get-go and for me, that planted a question in my head which really served as a crux to why I made this documentary, which is, “What makes these kids devote their lives to this dance, and how are they able to translate their own sort of personal — even cultural or political — issues, through dance?”

APA: When you first set out to put this together, I’m guessing there may have been an impulse to focus on b-boying through a more historical lens, i.e. “this is how it started.” But Planet B-Boy, while it includes a quick history, is very much focused on the here and now. Did you go back and forth over what that focus and balance should be between history and the contemporary?

BL: The only debate was, “how much time do we give to the history?” And the reason is you can’t do two films in one. They literally are two different films. There’s already been a film made on the history of it: The Freshest Kids.

APA: And so you decided to mostly focus on the current, then?

BL: If you’re gonna do any justice to the history, you either just skim it, or you go for broke. The history…it’s like a black hole. Once you get sucked in, it’s kind of hard to get out. You are constantly walking on eggshells. And you are constantly questioning the authenticity of information and you know it’s a scientific approach with no scientific evidence. It’s all just like “I was there,” “He wasn’t there,” or it’s just constant bickering. It’s very political, there’s a lot debate within the community. I’m certainly not the person to go in there and say that this is the definitive history. It’s actually much safer not to do that. The last group I want to disrespect are the b-boys.

APA: Especially with the old school American b-boys, the debates over who originated what and all that can get very contentious. From what I know, for a lot of these guys, all they have is their reputation and so they can be very wary of how “outsiders” represent them, their community, and their art.

BL: The only way that I can make some sort of analogy of it is if some filmmaker was to make the history of how the Korean Americans climbed the social ladder in the 1990s and wasn’t Korean American. I’d be very skeptical. I’d wonder, “Why are you doing this?” I understand that, and I wanted to be more of a reporter in terms of what’s happening now. Because people need to understand how hip-hop has evolved, culturally, artistically, in the context of dance. That’s what’s important to me.

APA: In the movie, you trail five national teams: the U.S., France, Japan, South Korea, and the defending champions, who also happen to be from Korea. By the time you reach the Battle of the Year, all of them, except the U.S., make the semi-finals. I thought that was either remarkably good luck in who you chose initially or perhaps you tailed other teams but cut them at the end to only focus on the teams in the semis?

BL: No. that wasn’t the case. All the teams in the film are the only teams that we followed. I was just happy to get one team into the finals. I knew that France and Korea would probably make it, based on their historical performance there.  But Japan and the United States hadn’t made it for a long time.

APA: What governed your choices? Obviously, there are a lot of other national teams you could have chosen.

BL: Korea, definitely, I followed because of the story behind the b-boys and what they have to go through with the military and all that. And the French, absolutely, they’ve had a deep history, and so have the Japanese. The Americans we followed because they’re the sovereign b-boy nation.

APA: The Japanese team — Ichigeki — was amazing with their choreography.

BL: Japan is one of the few countries in Asia that took up b-boying [early on]. They were one of the first and really embrace that, as well as hip-hop culture. So they have a deep history…and it’s definitely evolved there as an art. And it’s just interesting how Japan is also one of the most repressed countries I’ve ever been to. You see how that translates in the dance or how they use the dance to emotionally and psychologically express themselves. I wanted to try to capture that aspect.

APA: The two Korean teams — Gamblerz and Last For One — are also really fascinating, especially because, as you put it, South Korea came “out of nowhere” in the early 2000s and put the world on notice. One thing that’s mentioned in the film is that the Korean teams are renown for their “power” [flashy moves requiring exceptional athleticism] but other competitors seemed to insinuate that Korean b-boys lacked dance finesse. It feels almost racially stereotypical: the Koreans are technically exceptional but come up short on “soul.” Do you sense that’s real or an overgeneralization?

BL: The best dancer from Korea, who has style, is just an average dancer in America, an average b-boy in my opinion. Like he’s just a good b-boy. But the cats from France and Japan, where they have a huge history, are not just about power. There are generations before them who have truly refined aspects of this dance. America, in my opinion, has the best dancers.

APA:  How did South Korea manage to build up such world-class b-boy skills yet stay under the world’s radar until 2001 or so?

BL: That entails a very complicated answer. There’re so many factors involved. Foundation is very important for b-boys — meaning, learning the “old school way.” But the Korean people started in the “new school.” They were very influenced by a dancer by the name of Storm. He’s a German dancer — he’s in our film, he’s one of the experts. He really helped take power to a whole new level, like spinning on his head for forever. He was spinning on parts of his body no one had ever spun on before. His next level was [Korea’s] foundation. They saw him and they’re like, “oh, we should just try this.” So they didn’t start with the classical b-boy foundation, they started with power. And essentially, you throw on top of that the whole pressure to be a dancer before you become 21 — before you go into the army.

APA: The social pressures are different than what, say, American youth might expect or understand.

BL: Yeah absolutely. They’re just like, “you know what? We’re just losers, but we love this dance. And the harder we dance and the longer we dance, the better we get. And the better we get, the more respect we get and respect goes a long way.” All these variables influence people’s development. The dance — it’s political, it’s social, it’s personal. And then you add the parents in the mix who are like, “You’re not going to amount to anything and this and that,” and you have a whole country of b-boys who pretty much are living under the same harassment and treatment, and they’re all pushing each other, and that’s how you basically get these amazing b-boys.

APA: I’m wondering too, where are all the b-girls in all this?

BL: Oh, they’re everywhere. They’re alive and well, and very organized and amazing dancers. They are phenomenal dancers.

APA: But they don’t show up in your film very much, though.

BL: No, I mean this big event [Battle of theYear] — it’s not that they don’t allow girls, but a lot of b-boys don’t want the girls to be in as part of the show because it is very physical.

APA: Physically demanding you mean?

BL: Yeah, like the show, the choreography they put together, where they’re throwing people around and all of that kind of stuff, it’s pretty physically demanding. And the guys like to show off their power on stage. Girls aren’t about that power. Yet, there’re a lot of b-girl events out there, where the girls have organized and took control of their own scene. The b-boys are really respectful of that. It’s similar to sports that don’t mix sexes because of the physical differences.

Planet B-Boy is Benson Lee’s second full-length film (his first was a narrative called Miss Monday) and his first documentary. Lee describes the challenges facing a filmmaker trying to follow five teams around the world, his plans for a b-boy feature narrative film, and the differences between shooting breakdancing and glass blowing.

APA: The film is well-edited and you’re constantly jumping between the different national teams. How many teams did you have, following these guys?

BL: Oh it’s just us. Myself, my cameraman, and my soundman.

APA: You must have had some ridiculous schedule; how long was principle shooting?

BL: About two months. On the road.

APA: So during that, you’re literally continent hopping?

BL: Yeah. We covered five countries in two months. We literally went around the world about one and a half times. And we didn’t really have much of a break. We had like one day off for a week, but we were filming everyday.

APA: With documentary filmmaking, many of the storylines can come together at the editing stage. I noticed in Planet B-Boy that there were some interesting parallel narratives going on, especially with two of the Japanese and Korean competitors respectively, both of whom had these compelling/challenging relationships with their fathers. Was that something that fleshed itself out in the editing or something you picked up on while shooting?

BL: No, we definitely caught that early. We knew right away, when we captured it, that we had some good stuff. There were lots of really amazing stories that didn’t make it into the final cut.

APA: Was it hard to decide what to keep and what to have to lose?

BL: Yeah, absolutely, that was really hard. Extremely hard. But you know, DVD brings a lot of solace to filmmakers. Our DVD extras are gonna be really, really fat.

APA: Do you mind sharing what those might be?

BL: Just other stories of other dancers. When you have a crew of eight people, they’re definitely gonna have some really dramatic stories. I have five or six more that are just equally as resonant and dramatic.

APA: In terms of how to shoot b-boying, there’s different schools of thought about how to capture something as kinetic as the dance. Some filmmakers choose to make their shooting as equally kinetic, other people prefer a more stationary style and let the action unfold without a lot of tricks or angles. How did you guys decide to approach how to shoot the film?

BL: Let the dance speak for itself. The dancers were moving themselves; they were the kinetic force in the lens. We didn’t have to do much stylized stuff. It was like doing a documentary on glass blowing or something: I might want to make the camera a little bit more kinetic, but [with b-boying] people want to see the dance, they don’t want to see the camera moving around the dancer as they’re moving, you know?

APA: I heard the next thing you’re moving onto is going to be a feature narrative adaption of Planet B-Boy. Do you have a sense of what that would look like?

BL: I’m working on a story right now. It’s not gonna mirror Planet B-Boy the documentary, but it’s gonna capture the same themes, which are the globalization of hip-hop and b-boying, and how different countries bring different styles.

APA: You did such a great job with the documentary. Is a narrative film really necessary in order to sort of accentuate the very same things that you talked about?

BL: I mean, I’m a feature filmmaker and that’s my love. And I’ve got a great source of information, which is this documentary that I just shot. And I’ve got people who are really interested in making a feature out of it.

APA: And you think it’s going to allow you to tell the story in a different way that you don’t think was possible with a documentary?

BL: Absolutely. You’ve got all these dance films out there right now, that are all just wacked versions, where they steal from b-boying, but never call it b-boying. So it’s about a ballerina who falls in love with you know, a street dancer, and they meet in the middle of the tracks and then it’s all good. I’m fucking sick of that shit. I’m hoping that people are willing to take a risk, but if they don’t want to, then I’ll just move on to my next project, fine. I’m not in a position, nor do I want to be in a position for whatever the price, to make Step Up 3.

APA: Most filmmakers I know tend to go from documentaries to narratives but you went the other way. What was it like making a documentary film after your experience making Miss Monday?

BL: This has been the best film school that I never went to, actually. When you learn how to tell a story in the editing room, and you learn that kind of commitment, it really trains your eyes and ears and your brain to really get down to the nitty-gritty and that was quite a revelation for me. I would have never known I could learn so much that would complement my feature work, through documentaries. It is a great school.

For more updates on Planet B-Boy, as well as upcoming screening dates and locations, check out the official website here.