Although the vogue for breakdancing may have waned in these parts, it appears to be bigger than ever internationally, as proved by Planet B-Boy. Indeed, when one travels the world one can usually espy a group of kids in town squares from Milan to Montevideo, spinning on their heads. Such groups are the focus of this documentary, which culminates in a big annual competition held in Braunschweig, Germany.

Director Benson Lee obviously has a deep affection for his subject and his film is a lively, engaging terpsichorean travelogue which takes us to Osaka, Paris, Seoul and Las Vegas, as he covers various dancing crews preparing for the contest. Various national strengths are revealed: The Japanese are noted for their inventive moves, the French for their physical strength, and the Koreans for their technique and conceptual daring (the history of that land’s North-South division is the theme of one dance), while the Vegas boys incorporate some glitzy showmanship endemic of their hometown. One thing links them all, regardless of country: their fierce sense of competition, as intense as in any blood sport. Tension runs particularly high when they all hit Germany and are housed together in a school where they must adjust to strange food and other customs, all the while eyeing each other’s performances warily during the group rehearsal sequences.

The film is palpably full of youthful ethnic male beauty and memorable characters, like a Korean boy who sits abashedly by as his father, whose job is installing the South Korean flag in people’s homes, expounds on his non-comprehension of his son’s ambitions, or the more outwardly rebellious 12-year-old French dancer who greets his mother’s confession of racial fears with a contemptuously muttered, “Whatever.” There is “Crazy Monkey,” also from France, who does endless head spins and one Japanese breaker who works his tail off in his family’s tea shop and repeats his country’s well-known adage of conformity, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down."

Filmed at an agreeable breakneck pace, it all culminates in the competition itself, where those Korean boys do indeed really shine. But underlying everything is a certain pathos, which exists in every dance field, from ballet to b-boying: the knowledge of it being essentially a pursuit for the young and healthy. No matter how big the trophy or cash prize, the essential tenuousness of this art—especially for the impoverished South Korean crew, who’ve hocked everything just to get to Germany—is an inescapable fact.