French Film Fest 2001 at Shangri-La Mall

French Film Fest 2001 at Shangri-La Mall
By Walter Ang
June 2001

I caught two films at the French Film Fest held recently at the Shangri-La Cinema. The lovely people at the French Embassy and Alliance Francaise de Manille made the film fest part of their French Spring Festival and admission was at my favorite price, free.

Foreign films are not for every one. An open mind for cultural differences and nuances must be the first consideration. Speed reading skills are also a practical consideration. After all, apart from the word 'oui' and 'omlette du fromage' (courtesy of popular cartoon nerd Dexter) not everyone understands French. Only the subtitles are our saving grace. And they didn't even translate 'oui' anymore, for that matter.

The first movie I caught will be familiar to comic book lovers of two warriors from a Gaulish village. 'Asterix and Obelix Vs. Caesar' was a hilarious look at how these two and their fellow villagers fight off the nasty Roman empire with the help of a magic potion that gives them all superhuman strength.

Village people
Gerard Depardieu is the perfect person to incarnate Obelix (they're in production to do another installment and this time they'll be going up against Cleopatra) and he plays it with the perfect combination of oafish sweetness and genteel humor. Roberto Benigni, who shot to worldwide recognition with 'Life is Beautiful', was funny and fabulous as everyone's foil, Destructivus.

Their Julius Caesar had the most wonderful Roman nose imaginable (read: humongous) and the actor they picked to play a Roman general called Caius Bonus is, by far, the only human person I've seen who looks like a cartoon character. I swear if I didn't know the guy was a real person, I would've thought his face was computer generated.

The movie's visual appeal and production design was inventive and fun, and Asterix's village looked like it emerged from the pages of the comic book. The movie kept with the comic's funny treatment of the characters' names like Semiautomatix, Panoramix, Cacofonix and Parfarnalia. Of course, the audience just loved Obelix's dog's name: Dogmatix.

One thing I noticed though was the audience's reaction to one of the scenes in the movie. When the Roman soldiers got ready to attack the village, they formed phalanxes, the military move where soldiers interlock their shields. I guess this move must not be as well known as I thought it was since the audience laughed and thought their formation hilarious. Oh well.

Segue to black
The only other movie I got to see was 'Code Unknown'. This one starred the luminous Juliette Binoche, who last made waves with the Oscar nominated 'Chocolat'. Code Unknown is a far cry from the light comedy Asterix offered. The movie's subtitle stated as much: seven unfinished stories.

The movie's format was interesting as they had the first scene contain several different characters interacting in a street altercation. From that point onwards, most of the characters in that first scene shot off into their own tangent storylines, thus beginning the seven independent stories.

The stories had no 'formal' beginnings. You didn't know what the character's backgrounds and motivations were. The scenes were mostly 'a day in the life of' these characters as they sought to resolve one problem or another. You had the range of Juliette Binoche's character, an actress with a strained relationship with a photographer, to an illegal refugee from Bosnia. With so many characters and no neat resolutions, there was a lot left unsaid.

All throughout the shifts from one story to the other, I felt as if I was channel surfing, only someone else as holding the remote control. Perhaps this is what all movies will be like in the future. In this day and age of shortened attention spans, one wonders what kind of gimmickry or innovative idea will a two hour movie have to come up with next to catch an audience?

Speaking of audiences, I experienced another strange reaction from the audience. With seven stories to show, the movie relied on a simple technique to segue from one story to the next. The screen would go blank for a few seconds. Every time the screen went blank however, the audience let up a collective wave of sighs and groans and 'tsk, tsks.'

They let out this reaction with the same intensity as if the movie had been suddenly stopped by a power outage. The problem was they let out the same exact reaction with the same exact intensity each time the screen went to blank. We probably went through, and I'm not kidding, three dozen blank screen segues before most of the audience finally got it and kept quiet. Either that or they must've gotten tired of reacting so strongly. Well, c'est la vie.