The film opens with a view of the bleak, barren world. Horses pulling a carriage travel across the empty landscape. From the film’s title we can infer that the people in the carriage and travelling alongside it are the titular travelling circus. When they arrive at the village, they look at the people in the village, observing how skinny the villagers look of the. The travelling circus seems as if they were the ones watching a freak show instead.
Children are sick, they are starving for they cannot grow sufficient food to feed on. And when the circus men see the villagers, they see not people, but gold and profit. The boss of the circus takes advantage of the villagers, creates a new magic performance of ‘creating’ rice out of thin air and gives it to them. The simple, naïve village folk, told by the boss of the circus that the miracle is real, believe his illusions to be miracles.
They stop tending to the land and instead try to look for gold so that they can watch their performance and retrieve food from this ‘miracle.’
This 1988 Vietnamese film is directed by Viet Linh, a prominent film director in Vietnam and the film’s astounding quality speaks for the director’s talent. ‘Travelling Circus’s beautifully stark black and white cinematography is astounding, together with its realist aesthetic, of deep focus cinematography and diegetic sound (sound that comes from within the world of the film) to accentuate and give life to the impoverished, barren world that the characters inhabit.
However unlike some other Asian realist films of the time like Hou Hsiao Hsien’s ‘A City of Sadness’ which mostly observes the changing city and the characters from afar, ‘Travelling Circus’ also brings the viewer into the realm of the character through the use of dreams. There is a terrific dream sequence in the film where the boy is burned at the stake by his fellow villagers, reminiscent of the dream sequences in the works of Fellini.
However, despite my praises for the film, it is not a perfect one. The film’s use of flashbacks near the end of the film, where it shows a brief montage of the many fond sequences within the film before revealing the final tragic outcome of the naïve village folk, borderlines sentimentality. The flashback also appears excessive and redundant as the film itself isn’t even particularly long enough (74 minutes of length) for the need to remind the viewer of what scenes happened before.
Also, one of the main characters of the film, ‘Lan’ (her name if my memory serves me correct) is a little too unbelievable as a character, she is far too ignorant and naïve even for a sheltered child to not know of how her boss is taking advantage of the village folk.
But even so, ‘Travelling Circus’ remains a terrific film, one deserving of more recognition from the film community. Few people watch films that are made outside of Hollywood or outside of their own local productions, even film goers who are willing to watch foreign films are usually restricted to the countries of a more prominent film industries like France or Japan.
And I have to confess, I too do not venture outside of the countries with prominent film industries, but watching ‘Travelling Circus’ really is an eye opener.
There are all kinds of fascinating films made in the many countries of the world, and perhaps if one is willing to look for it, it may prove to be a hidden gem like this one.