Yume (Bambi Naka) flees her strict household to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer. Arriving in Tokyo with little money to her name, she quickly realises that her goal may be harder to attain than she first believed. Setting up home in a tiny room and determined to make her dream a reality, Yume begins to traverse the dog-eat-dog world of dancing.
Dreams on Fire is a first-time feature from Canadian storyteller Philippe McKie. McKie has spent the best part of the last decade living in Japan, and his passion and enthusiasm for Tokyo is evident in every frame. Focusing on the seedier aspects of the city, McKie sets his story within the red-light district. He explores Tokyo’s dancing subculture scene, filling the screen with fetish clubs, drag acts, and costume-themed hostess bars. The world is intoxicatingly fun and viciously vibrant, with just a slight tinge of danger. Portrayed in such a manner, it’s plain to see why Yume is so easily seduced into the environment. Drenched in neon right down to the opening title card, Dreams on Fire has a potent visual vibrancy that captures and compliments the energy on screen. There’s colour bursting from everywhere; the locations, the costumes, the lighting, and the effect is disorientating and dazzling. It’s as if McKie has transplanted the essence of downtown Tokyo into the very fibre of the film and its kinetic nature is infectious.
A former half of famous Japanese dancing duo AyaBambi, Dreams on Fire is led by Bambi Naka. It marks Naka’s first lead role and real foray into acting. Being such a famous figure does mean that we are occasionally and momentarily pulled out of the mood of the movie as we are reminded of her as a star. Naka is clad in beautiful tattoos that are uniquely hers, and whilst they play into some aspects of Yume, it’s hard to believe that a girl from such a strict upbringing would have been able to get away with having them (even on the sly). It’s even less likely that they’re a new post-runaway addition as she’s broke and ink is expensive. It’s a very slight niggle, and overall, having put her professional dancer shoes aside, Yume is the perfect transitional role, allowing Naka’s talent as a performer to carry the heavy lifting.
The musical and dance sequences are mesmerising to watch. Covering a range of different dance styles and music genres, McKie traverses the sonisphere to take the viewer on a whistle stop tour of all that Tokyo has to offer. Although existing in the same kind of world as films such as Coyote Ugly, Step-Up 2, and Burlesque, Dreams on Fire strikes out onto its own path. Unlike the others, Dreams on Fire let’s the music and dancing do the talking; the plot and emotions are driven by these moments rather than a more conventional story. It happily forgoes the three-act structure and expected romantic entanglement to focus solely on Yume’s introduction and journey through the dance circuit.
The film deviates even further from convention by offering a stark insight into the cut-throat world of dancing. Films following a driven individual following their aspirations usually gloss over the worst aspects, but here McKie displays them for all to see. First he hones in on the perils of Yume’s job as a hostess, a job she needs in order to pay for dance classes whilst she hunts for regular dancing work. The position requires her to drink and entertain rich men whilst dressed up as a school-girl, which is uncomfortable enough as it is, but when coupled with a demanding boss, it throws Yume into some of the darkest moments of the film. McKie later highlights just how important one’s social media brand has become as the consensus in auditions is that social media status is of higher importance than your ability to move to music.
By side-stepping the usual formula, Dreams on Fire does still stumble here and there. With so much focus on the dancing, much like Yume, the world outside falls away. After opening with a nasty battle of words with her grandfather, Yume never interacts with her family again. It feels like an odd story element to include if you’re just going to immediately cast it aside. The pattern continues with characters seemingly set up as being important confidantes etc., before being disposed of without so much as a second thought. Again, it’s probably a statement on our consumerist and fickle nature, but it feels muddled. Similarly the timeline is jumbled, we’re never given any real insight into how long we have been following Yume’s journey. Connecting scenes could take place weeks, or even months apart, and by not being properly linked, generate the sensation that we’re drifting through, the viewer being just another person to flit in and out of Yume’s life.
The perfect platform for Bambi Naka to transition from dancer to actor, Dreams on Fire offers many hidden delight. Dazzling and disorientating, McKie displaces Tokyo’s dancing subcultures directly onto the screen, and in doing so creates a film that looks, and feels to be the life of the party. Following your dreams has never looked, or sounded, so good. A vibrant mastery of the medium of dance, Dreams on Fire is a rapturous sensory overload.
This review first appeared on THN.