Daria Gamliel for Cinetalk.net

Montreal-born (and Fantasia-fan!) Philippe McKie studied Cinema at Concordia University but has been based in Japan for a decade. His experience in the underground entertainment world has allowed him to create a love-letter of sorts to the Tokyo dance and subculture scenes. Dreams on Fire follows the struggles of upcoming dancer Yume (whose name also means Dream). She deserts her hometown and unsupportive parents to pursue life in the big city. Living in a shoebox of a bachelor apartment, she can barely afford dance lessons. Soon she gets sucked into jobs in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho (the Redlight district). The sheltered country girl learns that sex sells, and that without a social media following, her talent is meaningless.

The performance-slash-narrative could almost be a documentary. Most of the characters are portrayed by real performance artists from the fashion, DJ, dance and even adult communities. Yume is played by well-known model and dancer, Naka Bambi, who used to dance backup for Madonna. Naka shines on the screen, even though this is her first lead acting role. Even viewers uninterested in dance might be endeared to her as a character. In addition, there are appearances by choreographer Yumer1, and Butoh living legend Maro Akaji (silly trivia: he played the dancing “Crazy Man” in Kitano Takeshi’s Kikujiro no Natsu, 1999). 

As a fictional screenplay, some scenes are overly long, but as a pseudo-documentary, it shows the subcultures and its artists beautifully. The film is more than 2 hours long, but is visibly a labor of love. Great care was given to lighting. Many of the interiors are exquisite and unique. There’s a rather feminine touch throughout, and a spotlight is thrown onto the relationships between women. Male characters are scarce, and most of those present are of the slimy variety. The extensive female support system somehow makes Yume’s journey seem less lonely than it probably would be in real life.

Kabukicho is exhilarating and exciting, but also a bit creepy and depressing. It is filled with drunken and lonely businessmen, as well as desperate young women trying to earn a living. With its hostess clubs and love motels on every street corner, it is quite well represented through McKie’s vision, which is both colorful and at at times, dismal.

Fantasia Film Festival 2020 runs from August 5th to August 25th. 2020.

Dreams on Fire – On Demand, Tuesday. August 10th, 9AM until Wednesday August 11th, 9AM.

Official Fantasia Website