Fantasia ’21 review: Dreams On Fire is a hypnotic and authentic drama where dance is the star

There’s an apt dreamlike quality to Dreams On Fire from the very first few minutes, where protagonist Yume announces her wish to become a dancer only to be chased out of her rural Japanese home by her fiercely overbearing father, while her mother can only cry in the corner. Soon she’s relocated to Tokyo, packing her whole life into a tiny noisy apartment that’s barely bigger than her single floor mat, and the rest of the movie’s two-hour-plus runtime takes its time to show us every high and low of her journey.

Actually, the movie opens a fraction earlier in a way that evidently reveals how it will tell a large chunk of its story. Breathy stomps reveal a dance performance, everyone clothed in red, pounding the stage to an assertive rhythm as the audience watches, rapt. The camera barely moves, unwilling to resort to flashy angles or editing to force an emotional reaction from us, and this becomes a key technique. Dreams On Fire is a film about dance, and it wastes no opportunity to show various styles to us in electric, sweeping performances.

The framing of these subtly changes to best illustrate the type of dance, such as when an early street dance competition is framed in a low unmoving angle with long shots to give us the space to absorb the incredible footwork. Contrast that with a later performance in a steamy nightclub, where the camera sweeps in close to the skin and cuts between mouth and hips in alluring beats. Every style of dance – and there are many – has its own framing, editing and lighting in a demonstration of the director’s true understanding of its nature.

This authenticity is carried over into the portrayal of Tokyo itself. Often shown to western audiences as a friendly, calm and safe place, Dreams On Fire instead shows us the underbelly of the city that is dark, dangerous and brutal towards those that are too innocent to protect themselves. It’s clear the storytellers here know the reality for young girls, with an undercurrent of sexualisation and misogyny prevalent in so many places. In fact, a highlight of the film is how the women all stick together, young and old bonding in order to shine a light through all the crap that’s thrown at them.

As Yume goes from hostess to go-go dancer to fetish performer and beyond, actress Bambi Naka portrays her beautifully with an honest, authentic performance that manages to keep Yume’s innocence even when her dreams shatter around her. As her time in Tokyo passes, there is a sharpness in her that emerges as self-defence, but Naka handles this evolution with believable subtlety, so it’s impossible to watch the film without rooting for her every step of the way.

And then there are her dancing skills. I gather Bambi Naka is quite the superstar in Japan (if her social network attention is anything to go by), and for good reason – no matter the style or situation, her movement skills are never less than breathtaking. Also – much like BNK48 superstar Jennis Oprasert’s stunningly understated performance in Where We Belong – there is no sign of this fame or status in Naka’s performance. Yume is defined by her wide-eyed innocence, and Naka’s unpretentious approach never loses sight of how to keep her grounded.

Dreams On Fire is writer/director Philippe McKie’s first full-length feature and the sheer quality of all these elements – not to mention the unrushed portrayal of both the dance and story elements – is extremely promising. The authenticity he gives Tokyo is backed up by a huge selection of performers at the very cutting edge of its incredible arts culture, creating a pulsing feast of beauty. It’s also a trip into a rough creative journey with a focus on the need for hard work and perseverance, and how you need to snatch every opportunity to follow your dream. With beautiful performances, both in acting and dancing, Dreams On Fire is a film that will stick in the creative part of your mind for a long time.

Dreams on Fire played as part of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival