starring Bambi Naka, Akaji Maro, Ikuyo Kuroda, Masahiro Takashima
written and directed by Philippe McKie
by Walter Chaw I don't know if I've ever seen a film quite like Philippe McKie's Dreams on Fire. Not for its story of a young dancer looking for her big break while jumping from humiliating job to humiliating job; Flashdance and Fame are two of the picture's obvious touchpoints, although the Step Up franchise is the obvious headwater. Rather, Dreams on Fire is distinctive because of its focus on how each failure is a gift if you can manage somehow not to quit. The movie opens in a familiar place as young Yume (Bambi Naka) declares her dream of being a dancer to the violent disapproval of her tradition-bound grandfather (Akaji Maro), her mother (Ikuyo Kuroda) hiding to avoid the conversation. I've learned something, hopefully not too late, after thirty-some years in corporate America: that everything my parents taught me was a measure of success was a lie. Education, climbing the ladder, home-ownership, money as the end-all/be-all of happiness--lies, obvious lies. I have achieved everything I was supposed to achieve and it didn't make me happier for even a moment. No one comes to the end of their life wishing they'd worked more. I made the decision to be happy, and my worst days now are better than my best days then.
Yume finds an underground dance circle where she sees astonishing things, but though we expect to be blown away by her neglected, underestimated abilities, she's no savant. Dreams on Fire isn't that kind of movie. She looks for mentors, joins classes, and, having been cast out of her home, struggles to scrape together enough money to afford her tiny shoebox of an apartment in bustling, sprawling Tokyo. She's hired to be a hostess at a costume bar--a place where businessmen pay women dressed as various fetishizable professions to drink with them and inevitably sexually harass and assault them. It's the cost of pursuing her dream through contests, clubs, and the company of fellow travellers who fall away to despair or the realities of existence and the limitations of their talent. We see Yume hone her skills as a dancer in various virtuoso dance sequences where others are allowed to shine. The film is lit in neon and strobes. Credit McKie for holding still and letting the dancers, for the most part, dance. A Canadian expat living in Tokyo for the last decade, he sees the city as what one character calls the "centre of fashion in the world." It's a rapturously beautiful metropolis--and Dreams on Fire captures both its allure and its indifference.
Yume can't catch a break. Her boss is an asshole, she has to work a late shift when her only friend at work quits after being outed as a sex worker, and she shows up to an audition she really wants to nail with a bad hangover from whatever the dicks in suits slipped her the night before. Dreams of Fire logs the aftermaths of her disappointments. She cries, beats her head with her palm, and sits in stony silence and resignation, yet every time another opportunity presents itself, she brushes herself off, tells herself that she needs to go for it, and does. While the dance sequences are incredible, the scenes I like best are the quiet, patient ones. My favourite is when she wanders into a hip little boutique in search of a cool outfit to wear at her next big tryout and meets an aspiring fashion designer, fresh out of school and hoping Tokyo harbours for her the same sort of lightning Yume hopes to harness. This world is full of people too hard-working, too talented, to be scraping along the underside of spiritual and literal destitution. Yume has a bit of talent, but a lot of sticktoitiveness. Talent is not in short supply; a refusal to give up the dream is rare. One thing leads to another thing and Yume's network begins to grow. For artists, a network is everything.
Dreams on Fire is a fun dance movie that is also disarmingly wise about what it takes to succeed. It's a visualization of the aphorism that says luck seemingly increases at the same rate as focus on a result, tireless work towards a goal, and refusal to allow constant setbacks to discourage the pursuit. It's about choosing to be your best self at the expense of material comfort. The joy Yume experiences along the way shocked me for how much it affected me. Of course the film's basic shape is familiar enough that I could predict where it was going to go, but by the time it got there, there had been so many letdowns I started to share in Yume's anxiety and desperation. For all that, Dreams on Fire can be appreciated as something of a Climax or that rental VHS of Footloose where the prom sequence is no longer watchable thanks to people pausing the tape to learn the dance moves. Students of dance could unpack how Western styles have melded with Eastern styles to form the arresting chimera on display in this film. Students of cross-culturalism and cultural diffusion could find depths to explore in Tokyo's kinks. For me, a sequence in a fetish bar where a performer pours hot wax on her face is...well, you're never too old to learn something new about yourself. Dreams on Fire is lit. Hard to believe it's a debut.