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The Fairy Tale of 'Dreams on Fire': Someday Her Dance Will Come [Fantasia Film Festival]

Three girls in neon green dance outfits
A still from DREAMS ON FIRE

Dreams on Fire
begins with a fierce dance sequence performed by a group of women in artery red gowns. The troupe lunges and gyrates in movements similar to a declaration of war. A teenage girl with stars in her eyes looks on in awe. This is Yume, and the desire to dance is now seared on her soul. The beginning grabs attention and gives us a hint that Yume's story will require her to muster courage and a special kind of resilience.

Unsupported by her overbearing grandfather (Akaji Maro; Kill Bill), Yume (Bambi Naka) leaves her small village and travels to Tokyo to pursue her dream, no matter the cost. With no money to speak of, Yume rents a space the size of a closet and sets out to find a work. The story plays like a combination of an urban fairy tale and a video game. Yume learns to take each and every opportunity available to her. Each time she says yes, she opens doors, making new connections and gaining skills. Each opportunity allows Yume to "level up" and stay another day. And on her way, she meets many fairy godmothers. They generously bestow resources to her, just in the nick of time. Sometimes the gifts are financial, and some intangible, but all bless Yume and keep her going.

A Japanese girl in a black dance costume
Bambi Naka as YUME in DREAMS ON FIRE

Her first job as a hostess in a gentleman's club introduces her to Sakura (Okuda Saki), who helps her learn how to stop unwanted touching from the men without hurting their pride. Although Sakura doesn't stay long at the club, she teaches Yume a valuable lesson that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Although Yume faces disappointments and struggles, she is protected from devastation. Everyone she meets, save the boss at the hostess club (Masahiro Takashima), wants to help her. If this was an American rags to riches story, there would be some silly mean girl rivalry that she would need to overcome. Although there are dance battles and competitions aplenty, not once does Yume face petty opposition. Dreams on Fire stays in a hopeful tone throughout and establishes a world in which people are kind, at least to Yume.

Naka's portrayal of Yume exudes the wide-eyed and honest fresh-faced girl, almost too innocent for this endeavor. She follows the breadcrumbs others leave behind to attempt a variety of dance styles, from hip hop to fetish dancing to go-go dancing. When the fetish performer warns that the job involves using hot wax and whips on the customers, Yume says it sounds fun, without a trace of blushing. The viewer knows Yume just wants to dance, no matter the variation. As she learns different types of dance, she crafts her personal dance style, naming herself Karasu (the crow).

A girl with a colorful costume
Haruka Kurebayashi as POP-STAR in DREAMS ON FIRE

Philippe McKie directs the film, also serving as writer, editor, and art director. McKie brings his considerable skills as a DJ and event organizer to the film, and shows competence in bringing the Tokyo night club scene to life. As someone who has experienced the dedication it takes to rise as an artist and cultural influencer, he may have put a little of his own story into Yume's tale. Adding extra authenticity to the casting, most of the actors in the film are real dancers and performers who are fan favorites in Japan, playing versions of themselves.

Cinematographer James Latimer, aided by the art direction from McKie, uses neon-infused worldbuilding to create a gritty yet magical rendering of the Tokyo cityscape. The world reflects movement and life and energy, capturing the dreams of Yume, along with her many connections.

Two go go dancers at a club
Various members of CyberJapan appear as go-go dancers in DREAMS ON FIRE

One theme worth exploring involves the treatment of women in this world. As mentioned before, Yume continues to thrive because of help extended to her from others. But in multiple instances, Yume witnesses other females being abused or mistreated. From teen idols who have to starve themselves to keep their childlike figures to hostesses who don't feel like they can say no to pushy clients, women in this world aren't safe. Yume escapes harm each time, but she misses opportunities to stop these abuses from happening to her colleagues. This marks Yume's powerlessness to help anyone else or her fear of the harm being directed to her. Nonetheless, the theme of women living in an unsafe world permeates the film and leaves a disturbing undertone unexplored.

The plot of a small town girl trying to make it in the city has been around since movies began and serves as a compliment to the rags to riches tale. Yume is a Cinderella type, who starts with nothing and gets rescued by a prince. Only in this case, the prince is the small army of friends and supporters she meets. Each of them offers a piece of assistance, whether it's friendship, advice, coaching, a job, a tip, or a costume. She needs each person to climb to the top. While this urban fairy tale doesn't end exactly as you would expect, we feel confident that Yume can make it.

Release info: North American Premier at Fantasia Film Festival on August 8, 2021. 

Final score: 3.5 out of 5

Dreams on Fire movie poster