Benson Lee’s feel-good documentary profiles five break-dancing crews as they prepare to compete at German promoter Thomas Hergenrother's international "Battle of the Year" in 2005.
A lifelong fan with a touching sense of mission, Hergenrother was dismayed to see breaking vanishing into the limbo of cheesy pop-culture fads and young dancers working so hard and to perfect their moves and having nothing to show for it. Like jazz and graffiti art, breaking was better appreciated in Europe than at home, and Hergenrother conceived "Battle of the Year" as a showcase that would create a market for the best performers. The first competition, in 1990, was modest; in 2005 it drew 10,000 spectators and featured 19 crews from 18 countries (the reigning champs' country gets to send two), including Latvia, Denmark, China, Greece, France and Israel. Lee spotlights the Seoul-based Gamblerz, the 2004 winners, and upstarts Last for One, from rural Jeonju; the Japanese Ichigeki; the French Phase-T, comprised of North African immigrants and tiny, blue-eyed "Lil Kev;" and Knucklehead Zoo, a middle-class, mixed-race crew who emerge not from New York or Los Angeles ghettos but "out of the desert" -– Las Vegas.
The crews are perfectly cast for maximum drama: Last for One, poor and dismissed as country bumpkins, would love to topple the more worldly Gamblerz. Both Korean teams want to trounce Ichigeki in the name of historical payback; Phase-T seethes with inchoate anti-American resentment; Knucklehead Zoo bears the burden of hip-hop history. Experts parse the differences in national styles -- French crews are renowned for their musicality, the Koreans for athleticism – while the competitors struggle with personal dramas. Ichigeki's Katsu and Last for One's B-Boy struggled to win the respect of tradition-minded fathers; Lil Kev's mother was forced to confront her own racism when her "blond, blond, blond" son started hanging with "black, black, black" b-boys. The teams are shocked to find that they're all being housed in the same local grammar school, complete with communal showers and starchy cafeteria food. The results of the competition are almost beside the point: The sheer novelty of seeing Hungarian, Swiss and South African crews – respectively named Squad of Suicide Elements, Deep Trip and Ubuntu –is entertaining enough.
Short on history and long on human-interest, Lee's film mines the same ground as AIR GUITAR NATION and THE KING OF KONG (both 2007), with the difference that "Battle of the Year" exposure actually has a real-world payoff: We last see plucky underdogs Last for One Last for One performing at the World Cup in Munich and back home with the Seoul Traditional Orchestra, delighting an audience that ranges from teenagers to grannies. Hergenrother should be proud.
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