GFF 2021: Dreams on Fire Review
Dreams on Fire (2021) opens with an exhilarating dance sequence, a group of women in flowing red dresses performing onstage, each of them in their element. But it’s the gleeful expression of a girl in the audience that writer-director Philippe McKie emphasises here, her eyes going wider as she suddenly realises she’s found her calling. “Amazing. I want to become a dancer,” she says to herself as the music swells to a stirring crescendo. It’s a joyous moment beautifully captured by McKie, and one that perfectly sums up this film about following your passion like your life depends on it.
That little girl is Yume, now all grown up (and played by Bambi Naka) when we next meet her. Yet she’s more determined than ever to turn her dancing dream into a reality, much to the annoyance of her Grandfather (Akaji Maro) who insists she stops fantasising and helps care for her sick Mother (Ikuyo Kuroda) instead. With his scathing comments spurring her on, Yume packs her bags and leaves the family home for Tokyo – a place where she knows her ambitions will be accepted. Staying in the tiniest room imaginable (so small that she’s often banging her arms as she moves around) Yume hones her dance skills while working as a hostess, hoping to earn enough money to continue living there. When the job becomes increasingly demanding though, will she still be able to do what she loves?
If you think that plot sounds familiar, you’d be right. A character with a passion, no money and struggling to be the best: it’s a story that’s been told a thousand times before in Hollywood. But what this lacks in originality is more than made up for by McKie’s decision to really focus on the journey Yume takes throughout the dance world of Tokyo, his script following her as she learns from each new experience and grows as a performer. From hip-hop to voguing to go-go to the fetish community, McKie portrays these subcultures with respect and admiration, the people who run in these circles happy to teach Yume some fresh moves for her repertoire. Even an S&M bar is a safe space she can enjoy performing and feel in control, the women demonstrating the unique methods they use for handsy customers. There’s a realism to McKie’s shooting style that also draws us into these underground worlds, his roaming camera capturing them in a way that seems as if he’s literally just filming what happens in these places on a normal weekday. It’s a technique that makes the dance routines (of which there are many) all the more thrilling, those close-ups putting us onstage with the performers and showing their elated expressions. A hip-hop battle is particularly invigorating, especially when we realise the shy-looking Yume actually has a few ace moves up her sleeve.
Yet where Dreams really soars is in its portrayal of those highs and lows that always come with trying to fulfil your ambitions – something that many of us can certainly relate to. For every hard-earned win or chance to perform, there’s plenty of failed auditions or harsh criticisms right around the corner, Yume often finding herself back at square one and with no idea what to do next. It’s realistic (not everyone is destined to reach the top), but more importantly it keeps us emotionally invested in Yume’s journey, rooting for her every step of the way when we see how much she sacrifices. Bambi Naka’s wonderful performance makes us cheer even harder whenever she does catch a break too, her joyous expressions (such as after her first dance class which she leaves with a tear in her eye) showing us exactly why she soldiers on when the odds are so stacked against her. She perfectly portrays the passion that drives Yume – the glimmers of hope that can become brighter simply by looking at them from another angle. It also helps that Naka is an amazing dancer (one half of AyaBambi who toured with Madonna), her fast yet razor-precise movements and the extensions of her body conveying Yume’s emotions as she performs, particularly during a rapturous solo routine that showcases the different styles she’s learnt (a scene that Naka pours her heart and soul into).
As fascinating as this is to watch, McKie doesn’t always know how to tie together certain plot points, several of them left dangling without any resolution. While Yume’s guilt at turning away from her family is palpable at the start of the film, it’s a problem that only comes up again during a bizarre dream sequence – a beautiful moment that nonetheless feels out of place with everything else going on. Sure, it raises the stakes for her, but the fact that this issue isn’t brought to a satisfying conclusion is a shame, as something like this could have made the narrative more poignant. Dreams is all very non-threatening too, Yume’s job as a hostess showing the seedier side of that world in a way that probably glosses over the harsher realities of working in such an environment. That would be a whole other story of course, so you can understand why McKie doesn’t explore this in great detail.
Although this treads the same ground as Flashdance (1983), Coyote Ugly (2000), Save the Last Dance (2001), Make It Happen (2008) (I could go on), McKie’s film stands out from the crowd and feels like a more accurate depiction of the difficult journey to becoming a professional dancer. It’s also particularly refreshing that this is solely focused on Yume and her ambitions, with no romance subplot ever considered (an aspect that always turns up in similar Hollywood productions). Instead this is about her burning desire to fulfil her passion – a need that keeps her going even when that dream seems impossible. It’s an inspiring message brought to life by Naka’s heartfelt performance and perfectly conveyed via those captivating, emotional routines. Dreams might not have the most interesting narrative, yet this is a drama well worth checking out, if only to see the vibrant, exciting world of the Tokyo dance scene come alive onscreen.