MAKE YOUR MOVE opened in New York theaters yesterday (April 18, 2014), after circulating in other countries around the world last year. It’s an American-South Korean co-production (shot mostly in Canada) starring Derek Hough, from the TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” and BoA, a Korean pop star who’s had her most significant success in Japan over the past ten years or so. The film is a musical centering on dance (making it a “dancical,” to use a term my daughter introduced to me), and is set primarily in Brooklyn among a subculture of underground dance clubs and assorted acts employing a wide range of dance styles. It was written and directed by Duane Adler, who’s credited with the screenplays for two notable teen dance movies, SAVE THE LAST DANCE (2001) and STEP UP (2006) and two additional dance-themed movies, THE WAY SHE MOVES (2001, TV) and MAKE IT HAPPEN (2008). I went to see this (at a 42nd Street multiplex) without having seen much in the way of this genre (other than the Disney Channel HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and CHEETAH GIRLS franchises), so I don’t know how closely it hews to the teen dance formula. I came to this film as a onetime fan of BoA and happen to have a couple of her albums containing song CDs and music video DVDs in my collection. I’ve dabbled a little bit in K-pop (Korean pop music), although my main interest is in J-pop (Japanese pop music). (The BoA albums I have are sung in Japanese.) In any event, MAKE YOUR MOVE is the first American movie with an Asian female pop star in the lead. (NINJA ASSASSIN, 2009, had a male Korean pop star, Rain, in the lead but it wasn’t a musical.)
In the course of the film, Donnie (Hough), a street dancer from New Orleans visiting his foster brother, Nick (Wesley Jonathan), who runs an underground club in Brooklyn, falls in love with Aya (BoA), leader of Cobu, a taiko drumming dance unit, and sister of Kaz (Will Yun Lee), Nick’s onetime partner and now rival, who runs an upscale club for a Wall Street backer, Michael (Jefferson Brown), who has a yen for Aya also. Because Nick and Kaz are bitter rivals, there’s a feuding WEST SIDE STORY quality to the romance, based less on race or nationality than on a form of politics. For the record, Donnie is white, Nick is black, and Michael is white. Kaz and Aya are Koreans who were raised in Japan, so both Korean and Japanese are spoken at different points in the film. Aya’s teammates in her dance troupe are all women, some of whom are Japanese or Japanese-American, including one of the two other major female characters in the film, Natsumi, played by Japanese-American Miki Ishikawa. Nick’s talent coordinator and sometime star performer is Tatianna, the other major female character, who is presumably Russian and played by Polish-born Izabella Miko. There are Latino and black characters among the supporting cast, including the other dancers at Nick’s club. So there’s a nice New York multicultural mix to the proceedings.
The plot is propelled by the need for Aya to find a booking for Cobu to perform live before an audience so that Camille, a high-powered producer who expressed an interest in sending Cobu out on gigs, can see what kind of reaction the group will get from a live audience. Donnie just wants to make a living by dancing and has to stay one step ahead of his parole officer in New Orleans. He also wants to romance Aya after the two do an impromptu dance on the bar after first meeting at Nick’s club, Static. Michael, the Wall Street whiz, wants Aya to work at the club he owns with Kaz and has offered to get his lawyer to renew her visa when it expires in three weeks if she’ll do so. At a certain point late in the film, Donnie’s been arrested for assaulting Michael, but Michael has offered to drop the charges if Donnie will leave town and Aya will come to work for him. Aya, by this point struggling with her feelings for Donnie, agrees because it will keep Donnie out of jail. It’s quite an emotional scene and I thought that, overall, it was very well handled. Ultimately, Donnie, instead of leaving town, sets up a “pop-up” club in an abandoned church so that the film can have its big dance finale and Aya and Cobu can perform in front of a crowd for Camille and Donnie can do a final duet with Aya and show what he can do as well, even though it means he’ll be headed for jail to finish out his term afterwards.
There are quite a few dance numbers in the first half of the film and then a long stretch without one in the second half until the big finale, which made me a bit restless. The dances are all fun to watch, although the finale, while enjoyable, isn’t quite spectacular enough to justify all the build-up. Donnie does mostly tap dance and hiphop-style moves, while he and Aya do a variation on ballroom/dirty dancing moves in their duets together. Aya and her troupe employ dance moves with their Taiko drumming, although I’m not sure how to describe them. There are other dance acts in the film that seem to use a mix of jazz, hiphop, tap and modern dance. COBU is, in fact, an actual New York-based dance troupe consisting entirely of Japanese female drummer-dancers, and its leader and founder, Yako Miyamoto, is in the film, along with three other members of the group, and assisted with some of the choreography. Here is info taken from the MakeYourMove3D Fans website:
What is Cobu?
1) According to the New York Times, the original title of ‘Cobu 3D’ had an alternative title, which was ‘Cobu: New York Nights’. It has now been changed to ‘Make Your Move’ because the movie’s marketing team felt that “Cobu” would be a tough sell in a 2 minute trailer for American audiences.
2) The original movie title “Cobu” is taken from the New York performing arts group, COBU, started by Yako Miyamoto.
3) Yako Miyamoto says that Cobu Director Duane Adler saw her performances 6 years ago and asked her if she wanted to create a movie.
4) Yako created Cobu to be a new style of performance, combining Japanese taiko drumming and Broadway tap dancing.
5) Yako defines her “COBU” performances as “drum like dancing, dance like drumming”.
6) “Cobu” is from the word CO, which means drumming, and BU is the word for dancing. Together it means: stir up one’s mind. When drumming it stirs up one’s mind to do dancing.
7) “Cobu” in Chinese characters is “鼓舞”. The pronunciation is GUWU (in Chinese), COMU (in Korean), and COBU (in Japanese). 鼓 means Drumming. 舞 means Dancing.
8) Taiko means “drum” in Japanese and Taiko drumming refers to the recent art form of ensemble drumming.
9) See the members of the authentic Cobu New York ensemble.
There’s a certain amount of contrivance in the film’s plotting, particularly in Donnie’s magical ability to fix up an abandoned church and turn it into a “pop-up” club in a few hours, with absolutely no money to his name, and conjure up a sizeable crowd, including super-busy Camille, on short notice to witness Cobu’s act and Donnie’s duet with Aya. I don’t know enough about the world of underground dance clubs and “pop-up” clubs to judge the film’s accuracy in recreating this world. Nor do I know enough about social media to assess how accurate the film’s use of it is in showing doctored videos as tactics in the rivalry playing out between the two clubs. Even so, there’s nothing in this film that’s any more contrived than those “Let’s put on a show” scenes in the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals done at MGM some 70 years ago. Nor did I ever once feel that the movie was stupid or that its characters ever did anything completely out of character to propel the plot. Every character in the film behaves like a human being, rather than a function of the screenplay. The film could easily have gone off the rails in its use of a Wall Street dealmaker as the villain, but I found the character thoroughly believable. He seems to genuinely care for Aya and his jealousy of Donnie is perfectly understandable, but his treatment of both characters is surprisingly fair. He’s motivated by self-interest, but his skill at making deals means he strives to get what he wants without seriously hurting any of the other parties. He never goes over the top.
Neither Hough nor BoA is a trained actor. They both come to their leading roles from other fields. (Hough is a star of TV’s “Dancing with the Stars.”) Some of their more intense dramatic scenes could have used a little more work. But they’re both attractive, have loads of charm and are good dancers. And they’re sincere. I believed they cared about each other and were genuinely drawn to each other. Aya is clearly charmed by Donnie, but puts up some resistance in their early scenes. She doesn’t fall for him at the drop of a hat like she would in a lesser movie. He has to earn her affection. And he does. She talks about him with Natsumi and insists that she likes him because he doesn’t try to control her. For Donnie, Aya represents a challenge of commitment, since in the past he has always given up and walked away from everything he’s started, but now wants to break that pattern. To be sure, the line readings could have been better, but overall, I was moved by their romance.
The film opens in New Orleans and has some location shooting there, before moving to Brooklyn, where the rest of the film takes place. There are some establishing shots featuring Hough framed against Brooklyn landmarks, but the bulk of the film was shot in Toronto. Some of the main cast members are Canadian.
I would like to have seen BoA sing in the film, but I fear that might have been one contrivance too many, since the character she plays is a dancer-drummer and not a singer. She is heard singing a song in English over the end credits, though.
I’m pleased to see an American film with an Asian female pop star in the lead. I would have been even more pleased if it had been a Japanese female pop star, but I’m not surprised that a K-pop star is the first. K-pop has had a greater penetration into the American market than J-pop (or Cantopop—Cantonese, or Mandopop—Mandarin, for that matter). I was at a gathering of J-pop fans a couple of years ago and the host was showing us K-pop videos he’d recently discovered. One of the women there referred to one of the K-pop girl groups as “fierce.” I raised the question of why K-pop has made inroads into America while J-pop has not. The host’s answer drew on our friend’s reaction: “K-pop is ‘fierce,’ J-pop is cute. Americans like ‘fierce,’ they don’t like ‘cute.’” That made sense to me.
The larger question for me, though, is why there have been so few musicals made in Asia featuring their homegrown pop stars. I’d love to see a J-pop musical, or a K-pop musical, or one from Hong Kong featuring any of their popular Cantopop singers, many of whom have indeed made films. I would love to have seen a full-blown musical with the Twins, a singing duo in Hong Kong, who made plenty of films as actresses, but only one that I know of where they did a song (all too briefly) on camera. Once upon a time there were musicals with Japanese singing stars. Hibari Misora, the biggest recording star in Japan in the postwar era, made a number of musicals, one of which, JANKEN MUSUME (1955), was one of Japan’s earliest color movies. Here’s a link to my IMDB review of it:
What I’d really like to see is a big-budget blockbuster international movie musical incorporating acts from all over the world in a variety of popular music styles and a variety of languages. If I was a billionaire I’d finance one. Unfortunately, the types of individuals who become billionaires generally don’t have this type of interest.
Getting back to MAKE YOUR MOVE, I should point out that while Mr. Hough is indeed a competent dancer and performer, I couldn’t help but recall, as I watched him tap, how so many better tap dancers used to appear on Hollywood screens on a regular basis. Granted, it’s supremely unfair to contrast Mr. Hough with, say, the Nicholas Brothers, but this seems like a good opportunity to remind readers what great dancing used to regularly leap out from Hollywood movies. Check out this nightclub number from STORMY WEATHER (1943), which starts with Cab Calloway and his band singing and playing for about a minute-and-a-half before the Nicholas Brothers get out of their seats to join the number and perform some of the best tap dancing you’ll ever see:
Finally, here’s a video of COBU performing at the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts on May 25, 2013:
P.S. On Saturday April 26, COBU performed at Sakura Matsuri, the annual Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I was there and recorded some clips: