The Traveling Circus (1988) Gánh xiếc rong

Theme: Culture
Runtime: 74 minutes
Director: Việt Linh

Ratings: N/A
Film Festivals: 1991 Berlin International Film Festival

1991 Berlin International Film Festival: UNICEF Jury Prize
Grand Prix at Fribourg 3rd World Film Festival (year unavailable)
Audience Award at Uppsala (Sweden) International Film Festival (year unavailable)
First Prize at Madrikd Women’s Film Festival (year unavailable)

Vietnamese cinema is an area that is relatively underexplored and unknown. There is a startling lack of information surrounding Vietnamese cinema in general, let alone this film on the World Wide Web, as I discovered whilst doing some research in my preparation of these film notes. It is definitely unbefitting of The Traveling Circus, a film that some have regarded as one of the most acclaimed Vietanamese films of the 1980s, and which has clinched numerous awards at international film festivals.

The Traveling Circus (1988) is a bittersweet tale of a small traveling circus from Hanoi that stops by an ethnic minority village amid the lush landscape of Vietnam’s central mountainous region. The materialistic troupe has solely set its sight on the gold mines that allegedly permeate the mountain regions, and exploits the pitiful naivity and desperation of the villagers at their starvation because of an ongoing famine. The troupe makes the villagers abandon their padi field harvests and throng the fields to mine gold for them, with the ultimate promise of teaching them the art of creating rice. Through the eyes of Dac, a village youngster, the magical realm of the circus is captured, along with the innocent hope that illusions can be real. He screams excitedly, “I saw it with my own eyes!” as the unwitting accomplice to the syndicate lures other villagers to the circus. He even forges a mutal relationship with Lanh, the sole female performer of the troupe whom he sees as a motherly figure who he can trust. He shows her the path to the stream, gives her his sister’s beloved pet monkey, and rescues her from a poisonous snake. His sheer excitement and hope of salvation permeate through his skin and bones, ultimately to be let down as tragedy strikes on a scale that can only be apocalyptic in his eyes. Lanh betrays his trust, his sister Poupon poisons herself in her bid to find food, and the trick he perpetrates to be true is all a hoax. The plot is rather realistic, and mise-en-scene vivid in capturing the stark poverty the ethnic tribes of Vietnam are facing. One can only sympathise with the sensitivies captured in the film.

The movie opens with heavy gong beats setting the tone for the movie. A wide establishing shot (00:06) has two horses ferrying passengers appear within the frame in the distance, which gallop towards the camera. This is followed by several medium and close-up shots that focus on various artefacts like the wheels of the trishaw, the sand of the ground and the characters riding the horses. Amid the ongoing gong beats, an isolated tree is captured on the right of the frame amid the vast plains and mountains (01:16). This isolation of the tree is cinematically beautiful while providing a context of its importance to the storyline – it is featured in direct contrast during the climactic scene of Dac’s dream sequence of being burnt on the stake. To capture the desolate nature of Vietnam of the 1980s, a lot of wide establishing shots are used to highlight the desolate nature of the scene. The circus ringleader, at 04:17 talks down on these lodging as “houses of the dead”, a view supported by the next shot of the impoverished boy and his sister who are both dressed skimpily.

Most of the circus scenes are captured in a slightly off-center position rather than in perfect symmetry, perhaps to convey a sense of dissonance and the imperfection of illusion amidst the perfection of what their tricks may seem (28:57). This is in contrast to the flashback scene in Dac’s mental impression (30:33).

Indeed, Dac tries to replicate the trick inside the house (31:35) engaging the help of his younger sister, but to no avail. Further, this scene is captured from a low angle that conveys a sense of power and authority that Dac possesses among the village kids for his leadership skills. Meanwhile, Dac’s father has gone mental and abusive. He is seen wandering aimlessly throughout the scene, mouthing liners like “Why doesn’t God just kill us all?”

But I do find Lanh’s character a tad too unbelievable. No matter how one might be shielded from the outside world or stuck in her own shell, it doesn’t make sense for her not to know of the famine or poverty that is plaguing the village. It is only through clearcut dialogue with her circus mate (52:08) that she gets a glimpse of the gravity of the matter. Even so, the scene needs to be cut away to a trail of villagers walking through the village crying in agony, that is eventually contrasted with the mocking tunes of the circus trumpet player while Lanh lies in bed, upset and conflicted.

One really cannot help but sympathize with Dac, the young protagonist for having hope given and then harshly snatched away from him. At 1:04:43, he returns home to find his sister poisoned to death through one of the strongest misè-en-scènes of the entire film We see the sister framed at the top-left corner of the shot, cutting an isolate figure against the stark emptiness of the hut. As Dac walks toward the lifeless body, we do not see his face but we observe his body movements through his heavy footsteps as he approaches his dead sister. The camera remains still as he breaks down when he kneels beside the limp body. He finally realizes his folly, but opts to tearfully sound the alarm in a manner that is self-defeating. It is as if he still harbours feelings for Lanh and cannot bear for her to get hurt. He picks up the circus gong (in contrast to an earlier scene where he played the gong for the troupe) and creates a ruckus, thereby alerting the troupe in the process as well.

Shot entirely in black & white despite the presence of color film technology in the 1980s, this could be inferred as a sign of the backward and primitive cinematic technology the fledgling Vietnamese film industry had at that point of time. Vietnamese filmmaking met a huge obstacle in the Đổi Mới reform, where the country underwent a paradigm shift from the centrally-planned Communist economy to a market economy in 1986. Struggling in face of the influx of video and television, the number of Vietnamese films has dropped off since 1987.

It comes as no surprise that The Traveling Circus was once banned in Vietnam. Clearly evident as one core moral in the film is the difficulty Vietnamese are bound to face in their adjustment in the economic changes. The central authority in the form of the Village Chief still takes charge of the village, but he spouts moral values regarding the need for hard work, through lines such as “If you want to eat, your hands have to work. And your head has to brave the rain and sunshine. There are no miracles, my son.”

Director Việt Linh now lives in Paris, France, but an increasing number of Vietnamese films that are making its rounds in the film festival circuit marks a cognizance in the industry. Tony Bui’s Three Seasons (1998) was at Sundance Film Festival, while Bùi Thạc Chuyên’s short film Night Cyclo Trip (2000) clinched third prize at Cannes Film Festival. European collaborations are common, with Indochine (1992) that is set in French Indochina perhaps the most prominent. But without adequate media structures, government support, an active moviegoing culture and a preference for the tubebox, this growth is still stuttering at best at the moment.