Credit: Glasgow Film Festival

Review: Dreams on Fire (GFF)

By Tomek Kutereba

A modern, Japanese take on Step Up? Count us in.

For both the films I’ve reviewed from GFF, I decided to go in relatively blind, so I could be surprised by whatever the filmmakers had in store. The only prior knowledge I had of Dreams on Fire was that it was a modern, Japanese take on a film from the Step Up series. Naturally, I was very curious as to what this would entail.

The film, which is the feature length debut of director Philippe McKie, tells the story of an aspiring dancer, Yume, who leaves her home for Tokyo. Yume, portrayed by the already esteemed Japanese dancer Bambi Naka, makes a lot of sacrifices in order to follow her dreams, and the film provides depth and nuance to this very idea: the struggle of one’s ambitions.

A notable highlight is the absolutely killer soundtrack, which provides such a visceral edge, perfectly matching the chaotic energy and editing of the various dance sequences in the film. It is in these sequences that we see Yume’s emotions portrayed not with words, or lazy exposition, but instead with visuals. A true display of the show-don’t-tell rule which is often cited by the more highbrow critics. In each complex, intricate, and frankly astonishing routine, we are able to gain a much better insight into Yume’s mental state, and the toll her chosen life has taken on her.

For much of the film’s runtime, we accompany Yume as she attempts to find work in order to support herself, and so she can attend dance classes. For the most part it is thankless work. One of these jobs includes working as a hostess within Tokyo’s red-light district, subjecting herself to the sleazy drunk business-types who creep in throughout the night, all for the benefit of her own bosses who wouldn’t even think twice about replacing her. It’s hard not to feel immensely for Yume, as we see the fruits of her tireless efforts in the sorry excuse for an apartment she calls home, which looks roughly to have the same dimensions as the packaging for a mini fridge somebody bought from Amazon Prime.

It’s these darker elements which bring depth to the film, and coupled with some truly haunting visuals, courtesy of some impactful cinematography, we get a deeper understanding of the turmoil in her past, why the stakes feel so high whenever she fails at an audition, and why it is so heart-breaking for her.

And yet, there’s a very vibrant, positive theme that flows throughout the film as a whole. With each dance sequence, we see Yume truly in her element, giving it her all. You begin to understand that she really is deserving of the life she desires. The emotional connections she is able to form along the way provide a good insight into the success she could potentially have in the future. These include when she befriends a young member of a dance troupe she volunteers for, and later on an art school graduate. Surrounding herself with fellow hopeful individuals helps her to feel more secure about the big decisions she has made, and those she has yet to make.

I was fearful the film would leave a mournful taste in my mouth, scared that this dancer I had found myself empathising with would keep getting beaten down by the gatekeepers of her industry. As someone with a keen interest in the creative industry, I felt Yume’s journey to be extremely relatable and reflective of the worries I have about my future. And though I’m no dancer, I could relate to this character, that she is trying to forge their own path against the most insurmountable odds. But ultimately, I was inspired by her resolve, and I found myself gaining courage from the way she picked herself up after each let down.

Despite suffering slightly from a runtime that is a little on the long side, I can’t say that it ultimately let the film down. For a first-time feature, I was more than impressed by the direction, and I look forward to finding out what McKie has in store. While I can’t say that it has fuelled a new-found passion for dance-centric films, I can’t deny that I found it an exceedingly immersive and gratifying watch.


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