Circus Kids

Reviewed by Yves Gendron

Action aces Yuen Biao and Donnie Yen star in this 1994 production, directed by well-known character-actor (but equally prolific director) Wu Ma, about the tribulations of a small troupe of  “Circus Kids” during a troubled period of WWII China. His big-top tent having been destroyed during a Japanese bombing raid in Shanghai, circus owner and ringmaster Shen Tinyi (Wu Ma) seeks safe haven in the southern-city of Canton. Coming with him are his three lovely daughters (Irene Wan, Lily Lee and Wu Ying Man), his son- in-law the circus clown Chiang Yitien (Lam Wai), three young pupils and the brash trapeze acrobat Lo Yitung. (Yuen Biao). Once in Canton the “Circus Kids” bad luck continues however, often brought about by Yitung’s hot-temper. But righteous ass-kicking police captain, Tang Fa (DonnieYen) is willing to turn a blind eye on account of his infatuation for May, one of the daughters. Eventually Master Shen, Chiang Yitien and Yitung find jobs at a factory but it is soon taken over by a bunch of gangsters. While Master Shen and Yitung leave immediately, Chiang stays behind so as to earn at least a little money for the troupe. As the gangsters convert the factory into an opium producing facility Chiang volunteers to test the new product with tragic results leading the remainder of the Circus Kids into a vengeful raid.

Yuen Biao, Lam Wai, Wu Ma, Irene Wan and Donnie Yen
Admittedly, CIRCUS KIDS’s premise is a pretty good one, unfortunately largely unfulfilled though because of shoddy execution. It’s pretty clear that the film was done not only with limited means but also on an extremely tight schedule where everything had to be rushed; the filmmaking proper, the action scenes and the editing which look especially botched here. The narrative goes at such a fast pace that if the viewer can understand the story, he is not given the time to get a grip on the characters and care about them. And even if the narrative was done at a more proper speed, the viewer still might not find the story or some of the characters all that appealing as the movie is heavy on melodramatic pathos, with Wu Ma as the patriarch feeling sorry for himself throughout most of the movie.  Further Yuen Biao plays something of an annoying loud hothead while Donnie Yen is given little to do but to kick ass or woo Irene Wan’s character.
Lilly Lee
The film does sport a handful of nice cuties though: the aforementioned Irene, Cat III actress Lily Lee in a rare role where she does not have to undress and another unidentified actress playing a feisty ruthless sharply dress henchwoman with one mean kick. There are also some touching moments of devotion and friendship though such as when Wu Ma’s character encounters a long lost fellow circus sister. Ultimately though, while this reviewer was able to grow at least somewhat appreciative of the characters and of their plights, chances are that most would find the story line awfully corny and tedious with no outstanding traits to redeem it.
Besides Yuen Biao and Donnie Yen, the action is also delivered by super-kicker Ken Lo as the film’s big heavy. They are all in great shape and the action design is tops, but just as with the storytelling, the action scenes are shot and edited much too fast. The results are that elaborate action effects are indeed delivered but with no edgy impact to them, which is too bad considering the screen fighters involved and the ingenious elastic rope trick Yuen Biao pulls against Lo.
Interestingly enough, the customary gweilo head villain is played by none other than Bey Logan, who’s HONG-KONG ACTION CINEMA is one of the best books on H-K action cinema. He was also editor in chief of the action-magazine IMPACT and the screenwriter for GEN Y COPS (2001) and the upcoming Jackie movie HIGHBINDERS. At the time, Mr Logan was involved in TIGER STORMS a one time attempt by a group of H-K resident westerners to fund and produce their own action films which ended up as a total disaster. Disgruntled, he was planning to return back to Britain when Donnie Yen invited him to play the villain in the movie he was working on in Shanghai: CIRCUS KIDS of course.
Bey Logan and Donnie Yen
This was the start of the long-standing relationship between Yen and Logan. The villain’s loud, coarse voice is not by Mr Logan himself but by a voice actor (presumably a westerner himself) who had already done the voice of the H-K governor in Jackie Chan’s classic PROJECT A (83). Mr Logan who had a background in Thai boxing, Taekwondo, Wing-Chun and Hung-Gar but had no screen-fighting experience appears to give a half-decent fighting performance against Yen, although it’s a bit hard to tell because of the quick-cut and clumsy editing. Logan has commented “Donnie was (and is) incredibly quick. He could kick five times in the time it took me to block once!”. The experience made him realise that he was better suited for work behind the camera; a choice he has stayed with except for some cameos.
Mystery woman and Ken Lo
This reviewer feels a little sorry for CIRCUS KIDS. As mentioned, the idea was good and director Wu Ma tried to instil a genuine sentimentality into the movie as he has done in many of his previous films. CIRCUS KIDS was his last movie. What a missed opportunity for Yuen Biao too, who was still in fine acrobatic form (although some enhancements and stunt-doubling are obvious) but his character is just too much of a jerk. As Wu Ma and Biao were leading players in the eighties action stunt-comedy sub-genre (to which CIRCUS KIDS is a distant offshoot) it’s a bit sad to see the latter part of their career being so shoddy. In the end this movie can only be truly recommended to those who are Yuen Biao and Donnie Yen dedicated fans and don’t mind having a movie shovelled down their throat by H-K cinema’s hyperactive tendencies gone awry

My rating for this film: 6.0