Among B-Boys (United States, 2011)
If you make a b-boy film, I’ll likely watch it regardless of how good it is. (Yes, I’ve even seen Step-Up (2006) and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)) There is something about all the various forms of kinesthetic capital young people can exploit in performance sports like dance, skateboarding, bmx trick-riding, and now parkour that never ceases to fascinate me. So when the schedule for the 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival was dropped, the first screener I asked for was Christopher Woon’s documentary about Hmong-American b-boys entitled Among B-Boys.
Although the dancing featured is not at the level of constant intensity that we find in Benson Lee’s excellent Planet B-Boy (2007), there are some dancers here who are a delight to watch, particular the twins whom all the other b-boys fairly agree upon as the best in the Hmong community, Vlln & Mpact of the Underground Flow Crew. Having one of them – I’m not the only one getting them mixed up in my memory, as you’ll find out in the documentary – with his dreads splayed out while lying on the floor comparing his routines to that of an essay is probably the highlight of directorial choices in the film. There are some choices, however, that seem like unnecessary filler, such as when we watch Tulsa-based (by way of Merced, California) Sukie and his crew net-fishing where we learn which exact days of the week they practice. And not all the self-explanations of craft by the practitioners are as poetic as the dance-routine-as-essay metaphor. The kids and young men interviewed are b-boys first, so their ability to explain what their dancing means to them may not be as tightly practiced as their routines. In spite of that limitation, Woon is still able to highlight how these young men have defined what hip hop means to them within their understanding of what it means to be Hmong among b-boys.
There is only one b-girl, and she isn’t given much dance time in the film. But what I found to be a tremendously valuable aspect of the documentary is Woon’s interview with Vlln & Mpact’s six elder sisters. The many sisters sit filling up the frame to talk about what it means to have such talented brothers and how they saw breakdancing as an important outlet for Vlln & Mpact, an outlet that kept them out of gangs. Acting as intermediaries with their parents, the sisters explained this new culture of hip hop to them as their parents wondered what the point was of all this spinning on the floor. In devoting space to the experiences of these sisters and through the images within the film of women preparing meals during family get-togethers, Woon demonstrates what Shona M. Thompson details in her insightful book Mother’s Taxi: Sport and Women’s Labor (SUNY Press, 1999) – how sports could not compete without the unpaid labor of women subsidizing recreation. It is clear from Vlln & Mpact and Sukie how they depend on their families to perform on the floor and how much their families depend on the history of Hmong as a moving culture to figure their place in this new space. As a result, these young men are clearly devoted to giving back to their families and the wider Hmong community.
Another aspect this old man appreciates about Woon’s documentary is his inclusion of the experience of post-b-boy syndrome. As Chris Rock once joked, men eventually have to accept that they have reached that age where you might not be ‘old’, but you are clearly a little too old to continue clubbing. I stopped bmx freestyle after learning a trick called a ‘decade’ and college came a calling. When I returned home the summer after my first year at university, I found the kids were rolling all their tricks now and I was left in their wake. And although I could do a handspin and turtle and was king of the worm in my junior high, I could never windmill, let alone spin upright on the palm of one hand in a ‘1990’. Watching these kids dance, I wish I had the ability I lost long ago, because the creativity of combining moves, flipping and syncing from one part of the body to another in combinations never thought of before is truly exhilarating. It’s a voyeuristic pleasure that informs us of how our bodies can break the fourth wall through the mirror neurons firing in our heads as we imagine ourselves doing the same moves we witness on screen. But I’m old and I have bills to pay now. Woon’s documentary acknowledges that this is as much a part of the adult b-boy growing up to fill up the baggy jeans they wore as an American teenager, adding further layers to the ongoing development of the hip hop doc that won’t stop.
Among B-Boys screens on March 10th at the SF Film Society Cinema at New People and March 12th at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema as part of the 30th Annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Fest. For more information, visit the festival’s page for the film here.
Since 2000, Adam Hartzell has been a contributing writer for the premier English-language website on South Korean cinema, Koreanfilm.org. He has written extensively on Hong Sang-soo for websites, festival programs, and The Cinema of Japan and Korea (Wallflower Press, 2004). He contributed several essays on various South Korean films for the upcoming World Directory of Cinema: Korea (Intellect, Ltd., 2012). He has even written on films not from South Korea for websites such as sf360.org and Hell on Frisco Bay.