GFF Review: ‘Dreams on Fire’(2021) is a Neon-Drenched Exploration of Tokyo Dance Culture

Rating: 3 out of 5.

‘Very intriguing but an ultimately lacking story, saved by an excellent, charismatic lead.”

From its very opening shot, Dreams on Fire grabs your attention. Beginning with a mesmeric dancing display the audience are caught up in the stunning choreography and the rhythmic stomping of the performers. From there the film rockets off to Tokyo where the traditional costumes and drums are replaced with flashing neon and pulsating EDM. It’s a film that’s clearly entranced with its subject matter and it’s designed to make its audience feel exactly the same way.

“I’m moving to Tokyo to be a dancer,” says Yume (Bambi Naka) to her strict and disapproving parents. They shout abuse at her as she flees their house to pursue her dream, never to return. There isn’t really much else to Dreams on Fire, in terms of plot than this opening line. Yume moves to Tokyo where she dives into the world of Japanese Hip-Hop dance culture, finding jobs and friends along the way. It’s written and directed by Phillipe McKie, a Canadian director who has been living and working in Japan for several years. This marks his feature debut and it seems obvious that this comes from a well-informed but, nonetheless, outside perspective. The narrative should best be described as a ‘look’ at the world of people like Yume who plunge headfirst into a demanding industry with little experience but tonnes of passion. Rather than following a plot the film ends simply once it’s ‘seen’ enough.

Yume’s experience in Tokyo is fairly episodic; she visits a few dance clubs, joins several classes and competitions, and tries to find work. McKie’s camera drinks in this world of dancing filling entire scenes with freestyled dance numbers, occasionally mixing it up with loosely structured drama. Yume gets several opportunities to finance her dream, but nearly all of them turn seedy. When she’s not dancing Yume finds work as a hostess at a nightclub, a teacher for a young Idol with a near-abusive manager, and a go-go dancer/barmaid at an S&M club. This is mainly used to help us sympathise with Yume as she’s repeatedly put through the ringer desperate to find her break. However, these scenes, juxtaposed with sequences of Yume performing her Hip-Hop routines, do seem to be saying something about the nature of sexuality in dance. While both aspects of Yume’s dance career have a certain sexuality to them, it becomes very clear that one is empowering and the other exploitative. Admittedly it is a subtle commentary and it never amounts to more than this observation, but there is something very interesting (and startling) in the way McKie can show two similar sequences and charge one with an over-whelming positivity and the other with tension and a far more negative energy.

Naka truly holds the film together as Yume. With a lack of plot to follow, the success of the film rests on her shoulders, and she does an excellent job. Naka has a radiant charisma, without which the film would have undoubtedly failed; her excitement at any opportunity is palpable while her determination, and unexpected resilience, is inspiring. The film is very empathetic towards her, helping the audience to feel as she does, but it is still Naka, and Naka alone, that provides the film with its much-needed emotional through-line.

There is nothing in Dreams on Fire’s narrative that is new or unexpected. Yume’s struggle to success has been seen in many other stories across cinema. The uniqueness of the Tokyo setting and the clearly curious eye of McKie does give the film just the right amount of originality, however. The episodic structure of the film allows McKie to explore several Japanese pop-cultures and sub-cultures and each are more interesting than the last. However, McKie’s curiosity is not enough to make an entirely compelling feature film and in places it does get quite repetitive. Making this an intriguing, but not stimulating look, at the Japanese dance scene, held aloft by its very charming and highly charismatic lead.

Dir: Phillipe McKie

Wri: Phillipe McKie

Prod: Michelle LeBlanc, Phillipe McKie

Starring: Bambi Naka, Akaji Maro, Masahiro Takashima

Header image courtesy of OUTCAST Films