The first feature film from Canadian filmmaker Philippe McKie, Dreams On Fire, screened at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival. His classic retelling of the ‘struggling artist’ story explores the underground dance scene of Toyko with dazzling authenticity and sincere story-telling.
Having lived in Japan for over a decade, working as both a DJ and filmmaker, McKie brings viewers into a world never explored in cinema, being the first feature to shoot at legendary S&M bar Black Rose and the first to show a Japanese voguing event in a narrative film. Japan’s first-ever urban dance film is an immersive love letter to the world’s powerhouse of dance that is told through the authentic portrayal of the niche subcultures within Tokyo.
The Indiependent spoke to McKie about the release of Dreams on Fire at the Fantasia Film Festival.
The Indiependent: The film excels in its realistic portrayal of the difficulties of breaking into the entertainment industry. Did any of Yume’s story as an aspiring dancer come from your own hustle as a filmmaker?
McKie: Absolutely. A lot of Yume’s story is a reflection of my own journey as a filmmaker. Of course, in the story, she’s a dancer, but I hope that the film will resonate with people that have dreams or any type of ambition. I think that dance as an art form is one of the hardest mediums to make a living off of. Not to mention that it’s connected to your body, and so a single injury can change the course of your career… that’s one of the reasons I picked dance.
But it’s absolutely inspired by my own, you know, the journey and hustle and all the rejection you face along the way. So when I was writing it and making it, I was, like, I feel like a lot of these, you know, success story films that we see, I often feel like whoever made these films didn’t really experience true hustle, you know what I mean?
The stripped back story of struggle translates powerfully onscreen. You also captured the niche subcultures of Tokyo beautifully. As a Canadian born director based in Japan, how did you capture such an authentic feel?
So, when I arrived in Japan in 2010, I was already feeling really aggressive. I wanted to start shooting right away. And very quickly, I started going into those underground subculture scenes. As soon as I got there, I realised even though I’d researched these things for years, nothing I read online was true. Or whatever I had seen was a fragment of reality. It was crushing in the beginning. I put down my camera, and I’m like, ‘Yo, I’m not ready.’
So it actually took three years of constant research and integration before I felt ready to tell a story that wouldn’t feel shallow. And I spent that time doing things like djing and event organising and working with different artists in other fields in Tokyo to really immerse myself. And so, then I made, of course, a number of short films, and every time I was kind of refining my process of trying to tell authentic stories and how to work with my Japanese cast and crew, and so by the time I got to Dreams on Fire I was like I am ready.
This is Bambi Naka’s debut as a lead in a film. How did you know that she was right for the role of Yume?
I’d been a fan of Bambi for years, even before she toured with Madonna. I saw videos of her dancing, and I was like, ‘Yo, she has something special,’ you know? Her dancing is incredible, of course, but also just her style and like everything.
So, working with her is a dream come true, and when I finally learned that she would be in the film, I actually rewrote passages of the film just to really match her vibe.
The script then got moulded for her and then while shooting, it was very collaborative and we had a great trust where I was like, ‘You are Yume now… like, you are Yume, and if there’s anything, whether it’s dialogue or her actions, or anything, hit me with what you got, make it your own character.’ And so, there was this collaborative process between us. So, the script was definitely made for her and she owned it.
The objectification of Yume is one of the main struggles she faces in the film, which you delivered with care. As a male director, was it challenging to handle a complex and important topic, and how did you research it?
Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m just as pure as possible when approaching themes like that, just trying to tell an authentic story. I approached it doing my best to capture reality and what I’ve seen, and the experiences of people around me. So, that hostess world is a real world. And I have many friends and people I care about that have worked in that world. All that dialogue and the tricks that Sakura (Okuda Saki) teaches her… that is from hearing these stories from friends who are hostesses or even working as sex workers. They’re my friends and I love them and I love to collect those experiences.
And in the hostess scenes, Yume comes in, and it’s like this threatening kind of world, right? She’s put in this vulnerable position, she’s getting eaten alive, and then Sakura sees her and shows her that you don’t need to drown… You can actually swim and you can be in a position of power in those waters.
A heartwarming element of the narrative is the blossomed friendships that Yume forms with people along her journey. Did this notion of togetherness derive from your own journey of becoming a filmmaker?
So yeah, no spoilers, but at the end of the film when Yume’s thanking these other characters… That is one hundred percent me doing a shoutout to the people alongside me, [because] we’re working together and we’re hustling together. We started from absolutely nothing and we’re trying to carve our place and we’re doing it together.
Words by Alexandria Slater
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