Korea’s unlikely champions“Check this out,” says Benson Lee. The 34-year-old filmmaker is sitting near a window at the Blue Nile, a coffee shop in the COEX mall. He’s scoping out the area before the start of Korea’s Freestyle Session preliminaries, a competition for B-boys ― known in the mainstream world as breakdancers ―whose winner will compete for the championship title in Japan.
Smiling proudly, Mr. Lee unbuttons his long-sleeved shirt to reveal a black Sid Vicious T-shirt. “Yeah!” he says. “The rocker never dies.”
Born in Canada and raised in the United States, Mr. Lee has received some acclaim as a filmmaker. His “Miss Monday” won a prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival for actress Andrea Hart’s performance. But it was his love of music that won him the trust of the subjects of his current project ― B-boys, who, these days, perform not only on street corners, in clubs and at parties, but in international competitions.
“We felt like we could trust him with what we’re trying to do and our vision,” says Charlie Shin, who manages some of Korea’s top B-boy crews.
For his documentary about the global B-boy scene,tentatively titled “Planet Freestylze,” Mr. Lee plans to use footage from every continent, but will focus on Korea ― and not just because of his Korean heritage.
In other parts of the world, hip-hop culture, of which B-boying is a part, dates back decades. That isn’t true here. And yet Koreans have been winning one international championship after another: the Freestyle Sessions; Battle of the Year in Germany; the U.K. B-Boy Championship.
“It floored me that Koreans were winning after only really being into it for a few years,” Mr. Lee says. “Japan has been into it for several decades, but they haven’t won any championships.
“I didn’t get it. There was something weird going on.”
B-boying, or breaking, first surfaced in New York City in the 1970s, along with rapping and the other elements of hip-hop culture. By the 1980s, it had become a widespread cultural phenomenon in the United States; its popularity proved to be short-lived in its home country, but it found fertile ground elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe.
But it didn’t really reach Korea until the mid-1990s, with the rise of the pop group Seo Tae-ji and the Boys. Once Seo had transformed Korea’s pop music scene with his punk attitude, ever-changing musical style and electrifying dance moves, “everyone wanted to be a back dancer,” says Mr. Shin. (“Back dancer” is the Korean scene’s term for a backup dancer.)
Some of these dancers began to hang out at a club in Itaewon called MoonNight. They formed groups that competed, or battled, showing off their acrobatic moves while local DJs like Wreckx threw down hip-hop tracks. They learned their moves largely from American videotapes, which they guarded like secret treasures so that no one else could steal their moves.
Then came John Jay Chun, a B-boy from Seattle who was part of a world-famous crew called Circle of Fire. When Mr. Chun moved to Korea, he became part of People Crew, one of Korea’s first B-boy groups. “What he did was distribute footage to everybody, without holding back,” Mr. Shin says. Mr. Chun had an extensive library; his generosity not only made it easier for dancers to learn new moves, but popularized the scene.
Still, says Mr. Shin, Korea’s dancers were only improving in a technical sense. “Physically, the kids were developed, but other countries were developing dance style,” he says.
Then, in 1999, Korea hosted the World Hip Hop Festival. Dancers came from around the world, the United States in particular, and the local B-boys had a rare opportunity to learn from them. Having already developed technical background and physical skills and dexterity, Korea’s B-boys finally began to create their own style with the knowledge gained at the festival. Their style began to get international attention for power moves “based on pure strength and an uncanny ability to defy gravity,” Mr. Shin says.
Drifters Crewz won the 2002 Battle of the Year competition in Germany and this year’s Freestyle Session Korea. Gambler Crewz, which came on the scene in 2003, won the 2004 Battle of the Year contest in Germany, and took second place at the 2004 Hip Hop Planet in France. River Crewz won first at Hip Hop Planet that same year. Project Seoul, a combination of members from each of these crews, took the world title at the U.K. B-Boy Championships.
“We are in a way new to the game,” Mr. Shin says. “Usually most countries pay their dues for a long time, but we have, in just a matter of two or three years, begun to dominate the international scene.”
Soon enough, Koreans were starring in those videos that used to feature dancers from France, the United States and South Africa. A project crew of members from Drifters, Rivers and Gambler was invited to perform at the Break In Convention in the United Kingdom. “They’re like rock stars, and they get to travel,” Mr. Lee says.
“We still get flak from other countries for lack of style and character, but it’s usually unbased,” Mr. Shin says. “A battle is based not only on dance, but you have to top the other guy. When you perform something that is almost physically impossible, you’re going to win. We have movements that are hard to fathom.”
As Korean B-boys’ reputation grew, Mr. Lee started hearing more about them. He had been part of a breakdancing club in high school in Philadelphia, but when the fad died in the States, he moved on to other things.
Still, he kept up with B-boying over the years as it flourished in Europe, sometimes watching videos with friends.
After deciding to make his film, he got in touch with Mr. Shin and Mr. Chun this summer, who put him in touch with some of Korea’s B-boys. Mr. Lee came to Korea and followed the dancers through their practices and competitions. He filmed some of them performing on the “Joint Security Area” movie set.
His overall approach for the documentary is to show the environment that B-boys come from, and how dancing changes them. What he found in Korea was dancers who are remarkably clean-cut, but who also have very few options.
“These kids might be viewed as punks in Korea, but outside?” Mr. Lee says. “They’re not involved in gangs. They’re not drug dealers. They’re healthy. They’re disciplined. They’re incredibly ambitious.
“But Korea is more of a class society than I realized. These kids are a West Side story.” In conservative Korea, having a vocation as atypical as “B-boy” automatically makes them rebels, he said.
Korea’s military draft is a major roadblock for them. Mr. Shin cites the case of the twins Park Geun-pyo and Park Geun-hyo, who in 2001 were part of a top crew called Skill on the Groove. Park Geun-pyo, entered the army; he’s out now, but at the age of 24, says Mr. Shin, “He’s physically not capable of doing the things he could do before. Nor does he have the drive or energy...
“B-boying is an art form you have to practice everyday. You have to be relevant. You have to be current. When you get out of the army, everyone else has gotten better, and your crew has broken up. To bring yourself back up to that level you were before you went to the army is impossible.”
The other Park brother, Park Geun-hyo, didn’t go into the army. He had tattoos, and young men with large tattoos are often kept out of the army, on the grounds that other soldiers are offended by them. Mr. Park attempted to take advantage of this loophole, but is now in jail for dodging military service.
“The candle burns twice as bright, but dies twice as early,” Mr. Lee says. “The limitations of a dancer’s life is a universal tragedy, but in Korea it seems more tragic.”
Since the B-boy scene in Korea is so young, there are no likely career goals in the field such as choreographer, dance instructor or manager.
“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no Broadway,” Mr. Lee says.
He found that some of them become factory workers after they grow too old to dance. “There are hardly any B-boys my age,” says Mr. Shin, who is 27. “The top B-boys were born in 1984. But next year, they all have to go into the army.
“For me, as someone who’s trying to build the scene, it’s disturbing. The kids who are propelling the scene, within a year or two, will disappear. I feel this constant pressure of time.”
But the scene is growing. Ducky Kim, a b-boy with the Drifters, says the success his crew has found would not have been possible two or three years ago.
“The hip-hop culture is developing here and the scene is growing much bigger,” Mr. Kim says. “B-boying is like anything else in life. If you want it really badly, you have to find a way.”
by Joe Yonghee