Lithe dancer Bambi Naka is mesmerizing from beginning to end in Dreams on Fire… A rare odyssey into the unspoken, hidden prerequisites of an artist’s life. Where childhood notions of meritocracy collapse the minute you’re lacking social media followers.
This Fantasia Film Festival review contains spoilers.
Dreams on Fire is a heavy hitting contender for 2021’s best movie of the year, trendsetting with a splash of cool. Allowing an honest glimpse into the savage intersection of Art St. & Business Ave. Where your entire value to society is equivalent to the number of followers you had when last logged in online.
A place where even having time to audition or practice your craft has strings attached, held in place like a marionette at the beck & call of horny hostess club clientele. Bambi Naka shows exceptional range as Yume in her feature film debut, from vulnerable, kicked out from home hostess, to mature dancing alter ego Crow.
Director Philippe McKie captures the essence of audition rejection with precision on-screen. No scene grander than when Yume competes at Tokyo’s big dance competition, with a potentially broken foot, giving her heart, soul, & health into the performance.
McKie sets up a high stakes scene with a 3-2-1 winner’s announcement countdown. In traditional Hollywood films, you’d expect Yume to win after much suspense. But instead, true to life, Yume does not reign victorious at all.
Her great sacrifice, all the practice, thrown away to the waste bin like yesterday’s news. One person’s casual dinner entertainment is another’s magnum opus.
‘To us… Image is as Important as Dancing’
Two themes resonate in Dreams on Fire: preselection and predestination. If you lack the electricity flowing from social media powering your craft, it’s rendered powerless and invincible to the naked eye. As Yume lacks followers, her application to be a go-go dancer is denied despite her skillset overshadowing every other dancer there.
Later on during a backup dancer audition… A manager can barely tolerate her presence after being told she’s been a dancer for over 5 years and only has around 250 followers.
Luckily, Haruka Kurebayashi who plays the manager’s pop-star in question chases Yume down and offers her a music video spot. Commenting that she’d been greatly influenced by Yume’s performance as Crow the night before.
Which just goes to show, ‘making it’ is a luck of the draw, an almost rigged coin flip. All you can do is put yourself out there and hope for the best. The vast majority of time one returns home devastated and disillusioned like Yume at her first underground dance competition. But all it takes is one person to change your life for the better…
Or for the worst. Ever wonder if you could make it in a creative field without your parents’ financial assistance at a young age? Without financial backing, you can’t take classes, without classes you can’t network or refine your craft… Thus, you are forced to take on odd jobs you normally wouldn’t undertake.
Yume finds herself secluded in the confines of a claustrophobic net cafe as a new home. Unable to practice dancing with anything but her hands & upper body, even then hitting her elbows on flimsy walls.
The naive countryside Yume becomes a Tokyo club hostess with a remorseless, manipulative boss played by Masahiro Takashima. Always pressuring Yume and other employees with the threat of blacklisting should they not concede to his requested work hours. Early on, Director Philippe McKie provides the full spectacle of sleazy businessmen frequenting Yume’s hostess club. They look down at the hostesses, often insulting them, touching them against club rules without consequence.
There is an excellent scene in Dreams on Fire where Bambi Naka’s Yume is taken under the wing of another hostess, Sakura, played by Okuda Saki. Sakura notices a businessman is grabbing Yume’s leg despite her visible discomfort and so teaches her how to avoid this.
In an unexpected act of generosity, Sakura leaves Yume a sum of money for her dance classes. Without Sakura, it’s possible Yume never attends a single dance class and remains stuck in the treadmill of night work. Always having her time indebted to her boss, without time to practice or audition.
In fact, Yume almost deserts her first class before being handed a water bottle by fellow classmate Shizuku played by Shizuku Yamashita. One act of kindness can be the difference between a lifelong career and sinking into an abyss like quicksand. Similarly, ChoCho, played by Medusa Lee, becomes Yume’s Crow costume designer via a chance meeting at her store.
At one point, Shizuku calls Yume her big sister in Dreams on Fire and truly she has a unique sister-like chemistry with Bambi Naka on-screen. A great casting choice.
Cinematography, Music, and Coolness Factor
You feel like you’re always discovering a new exclusively underground segment of life in Dreams on Fire. The neon lit visuals and dubstep/trap music, particularly in one of the opening underground dance competitions makes the atmosphere electric and alive. Fresh and capturing a scene before it becomes commercialized and sterile. Even the closing credits are stylish, fully animated with Stahl’s “Know You” track bumping in the background.
The cinematography is meticulously crafted, especially the casual dance offs between Bambi and Shizuku on the train platforms. A subliminal detail of how brief our encounters in life are, always minutes away from ending as we head to opposite directions on home.
Above everything… The way Bambi Naka dances is simply dazzling, hypnotic. A one of a kind experience.
– Dreams on Fire is currently playing at Fantasia International Film Festival with a repeat viewing on August 10, 2021 at 9:00 am ET. Tonight was the film’s North American Premiere.
– Be sure to read Fantasia 2021 Preview: Kakegurui 2 North American Premiere!