“Burning Dreams” captures a unique moment in East-West relations as it records the accomplishments and aspirations of self-taught dance instructor Liang Yi, who fancies himself the Gene Kelly of the Orient. Gorgeously shot in silvery black and white, docu features a jazz and blues score that makes this a visceral thrill even for auds not interested in dance. And images of kids on the make in a big city on the go constitute a fascinating portrait of Shanghai in transition. A long, healthy fest life is assured, along with some play on art-friendly webs.
Wayne Peng’s arresting docu came about when the Singapore ad helmer went to Shanghai to shoot a spot with a hot new dancer. When he found Yang Yang, an all-around pop star on the rise, he also found her scrappy, 70-year-old teacher. Liang flitted all over Asia, trying to spread the word about “jazz dance” — an ad-hoc mix of tap, Broadway and freestyle moves — before founding the Dreams 52 Dance School in South China’s biggest burg.
A caustic but inspiring figure, Liang found a terrific disciple in the pretty Yang. She is adored by her younger students, especially the provincial females looking for a way to succeed that didn’t exist a few years ago. A sidestep with a deaf pupil is particularly interesting. Still, the skills on display are mostly of questionable value.
Group choreography is largely of the June Taylor Dancers variety, but it’s exciting to see so many Chinese kids sweating it up to old Louis Prima and Bill Haley records, transferred beautifully to pic’s memorable soundtrack, which also features excellent jazz arrangements by Clare Fischer and pic composer Ricky Toh.
Brief bits of historical b.g., culminating in Liang’s impromptu bar show with his elder brother, a sometime comedian, offer insights into Asian vaudeville world Westerners know little about. And opening seg, of Yang Yang moving atop a Shanghai skyscraper, is among most striking dance scenes ever shot.
Peng also interposes frequently amusing title cards, including a closing one saying Liang can never achieve his dream of visiting Gene Kelly’s grave — not because of exit-visa problems, but simply because the famous hoofer was cremated.