With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Sunday, October 16, 2011


 Children of the Chinese Circus
Directed by GUO Jing and KE Dingding
China/UK., 2007, 58 min. Digibeta.
When: Sunday, October 16, 2011, 3:00 pm
Where: Asia Society 
725 Park Avenue 
New  York, NY 10021 

"Recalling the finest nonfiction achievements of Frederick Wiseman…. Fiercely intelligent." — Robert Koehler, Variety 

Visions of a New China, the nine film documentary series presented by Asia Society (NY) continues this afternoon with this fascinating and revealing movie. It's about the rigorous training to which young and teenage children are subjected in order to acquire the skills to become circus performers. In terms of who is being depicted, the film's English title would more accurately be "Children of the Shanghai Circus School," but this is not a significant matter.

Synopsis: Take a behind-the-scenes look at the training of some of the world’s best acrobats and circus performers. In this Shanghai circus school, a highly disciplined environment, small children endure excruciating and dangerous training regimes. Mostly from poor families, these children are sent to the school by their parents in the hope that the specialty training will secure them a future. While small children sustain agonizing daily practice, the teachers are also under tremendous pressure to produce award-winning stunts. A faculty meeting turns into a Cultural Revolution-styled criticizing session. This film is set to change your perception of acrobatic performances forever. 

ACF Review: The film focuses on three acts. One is a young boy who performs solo acrobatics, such as one-armed handstands. He is prone to overeating and gaining too much weight when he visits his parents, who are both mute. (He is shown practicing a headstand in the top image.)

The Threesome Handstand Group at practice

Second is the Threesome Handstand Group, which as its name suggest is a trio of acrobats. The older male does a handstand on the ground, forming the base for the performance. One girl does a handstand on his feet, then another girl does the same on the first girl's feet. We watch them and their female coach as they struggle to find the proper balance points in order to free themselves of the need for safety harnesses.

Two members of the Flying Trapeze troupe during a performance.

Lastly, there is the large group of male and female Flying Trapeze artists. They too go through a long period of struggle; in their case the problem is missed catches of the girls by the males on the trapeze swings.

The coaches are generally harsh and at times brutal with their students. Though they can also be the same with one another, as shown in an intense self-criticism session that the female coach of the handstand group undergoes. On the other hand, at times the coaches do give positive pep talks to their students, and when one young girl in the trapeze act suffers an injury, the care and concern of the coaches is clearly genuine, and even borders on tenderness.

One of the things that occurred to me while watching this film was that Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao must have undergone much the same type of training at the China Drama Academy, the Peking Opera school they attended.

ACF Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars; highly recommended.

 Children of the Chinese Circus will be shown in a double bill with Brave Father, a film about a peasant father who sacrifices for his son's college education. Brave Father will screen at 4:10 pm

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