Thursday, 8 March 2007

Stomp the Yard (2007)

Don't they do this every Saturday night at Zouk?

It's unfortunate that I didn't grow up in the hood, get my BA in an all-black high school, or join one of their Greek letter fraternities - which makes it hard to understand this hiphop meets black campus meets dance movie. While this movie is about dancing (a very predictable and formulaic genre), it's set in a world where every move you dance may set off a riot and get you killed because you just insulted someone with that hand-flapping action. In the ghettoes of Los Angeles, dancing is urban warfare by other means, almost as lethal as a combat sport and taken by its participants with just about the same amount of seriousness, as you will discover at the film's opening, where 2 rival dance groups wage battle over money, pride, and bragging rights in what appears to be an underground boxing arena. It's like watching a Balinese cock fight or an Aztec sport without any commentary track by the ringside anouncers. Yes, the crowd reacts with hisses, cheers and stunned silence as each team insults the other (but what did that flapping action with the hands really mean?) through their hiphop dance moves, but the point is you can't read or make sense out of what is undeniably a beautifully choreographed sports/dance/fighting scene that's bursting with energy.

But things are not meant to be and the victorious team is waylaid by the sore losers who want their money back. The gangfight that occurs claims the life of one young man, and his talented younger dancer brother gets a short jail record, a rude awakening, and a chance to reform himself, via a relation's connections in an all-black college, where our young hero will learn the value of hard work, solidarity in brotherhood (without joining a gang), woo a girl who happens to be the dean's daughter and the girlfriend of a fraternity leader (stock villains alert!). Since this is a dance movie and the hero does end up in college, this means all the fraternity clubs are actually competitive dance (or "stepping") societies, and the boy who grew up on the wrong side of town will teach these middle-class steppers something about real dancing from the hood. Which will lead to a dramatic finale involving a dance competition!

No prizes for guessing that the college dance competition will be just as energetic, involving just about the same amount of energy, aggressiveness, and coded insults in dance movies as the opening scene. Bookmarked by such mysterious yet well-filmmed sequences where you don't quite know for sure what is actually happening but it sure looks impressive, the rest of the film is too easily predictable and mundane, going from necessary plot point to necessary plot point. When there are no dance sequences, the movie goes into autopilot. Yet when there are dance sequences, only the opening and closing scenes stand out - because hip hop kungfu dance is far more visually arresting and interesting than college stepping, which unfortunately looks like any run-of-the-mill school orientation mass dances Singaporean students have to endure in their lives. If the director had wanted to make a film that promoted stepping, audiences might be led to think that he has achieved the exact opposite, showing instead that the street dance is far more superior and less silly than the sanitised college version.

Stomp the Yard has one good idea but doesn't go far enough to pursue it - for me, the movie would have been far better if the director completely ditched the fictional narrative and just went to the streets and underground arenas of LA and Chicago to film punks and gangsters waging war through hiphop dance. That, I'm sure, would be a great dance and music documentary. And perhaps Stomp the Yard is meant to suggest that to us...

First published at incinemas on 15 March 2007

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