Actor-director Guillaume Canet’s French film is not only lost in translation, but its confluence-of-cultures screenplay sidelines its iconic titular characters and only adds to the overall chaos.
Rating: 1.5 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
A few weeks back, it was the Super Mario Bros. Movie  that hit the Indian shores. That film has a more natural connect for the desis as the leading characters are derived from a popular video game. Come 12 May, Indian audiences will witness a movie on Asterix & Obelix, iconic comic heroes of French literature. Honestly speaking, there is little recollect of these characters, who we were introduced via cartoon few decades ago. That too in English.
Better sub-titling has enabled desi viewers to consume non-English content. Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom  is a French film. We would have preferred to see the film in its original language with English subtitles. We didn’t have that luxury but the next best experience would be to watch it in its dubbed English version.
Some sane voices requested if it could be screened in the dubbed Hindi version. Never quite confident about dubbed Hindi versions of Western films, we humbly turned down the request. How could this writer forget that the best experience of a French content is in Hindi! Damn, we wish that Oggie and the Cockroaches had sprinkled to this reviewer’s mind at that moment.
Over the course of the next two hours, it was a case of no comprende as actor-director Guillaume Canet’s Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom  felt like a huge ? The film largely appeared to be lost in translation. We couldn’t comprende its chaotic plot, screenplay either.
Asterix [Canet] and Obelix [Gilles Lellouche], the much-revered warriors from Gaul [present day regions of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands] embark on a maiden visit to China to help one Princess Fu Yi [Julie Chen] and rescue her Empress mother [Linh-Dan Pham] from the clutches of the usurper Deng Tsing Qin [Bun Hay Mean]. The Queen turns down Deng Tsin Qin’s offer to marry her daughter. He is then mocked at and referred to as Dancing Queen for the rest of this live-action drama.
After learning that Dancing Queen has aligned with Gallic arch enemy Roman emperor Julius Caesar [Vincent Caesar], Fu Yi and Tat Han [Leanna Chen] seek help from Gaul. Han is referred to as Karate. Canet takes Rene Goscinny’s [Asterix – Obelix creator] iconic characters to Far East but this journey seldom grips our imagination.
The Middle Kingdom is lost in its translation. After a point, you feel as if the titular characters are nearly sidelined. Pin the blame on its badly written ‘confluence-of-cultures screenplay that never appeals to this desi. All you get to see is one poorly constructed scene after another. The sloppy English translation doesn’t even allow you the time to make sense of the earlier lines. Though billed as an adventure-comedy, The Middle Kingdom is more a silly black humour saga.
A film that travels to China throws up characters like Unhygienix [Jason Chicandier], Epidemais [Ramzy Bedia], Panacea [Angele], Remix [Matthieu Chedid], Tabascos [Florent Manudou], and Antivirus [Zlatan Ibrahimovic]. Yes, you read it right. The legendary footballer plays an invincible warrior. But even the pompous Ibrahimovic can’t pull this Middle Kingdom out of a certain perte (doom). Unhygienix, Epidemais, Antivirus. These character names wouldn’t quite impress Communist China, the ground zero of the Corona virus pandemic. Are Canet and his writers (Philippe Mechelen and Julien Herve) taking a subtle political dig at China? The Gauls though are firmly behind the women and the people of China. There’s one Prince Du Deng [Tran Vu Tran] who often hides his face behind a wooden mask. His identity needs to be guarded. Is that a Tibetan-style jibe at China?
For a French film, we never found any touche moment in the conversations. The multi-ethnic cast is perhaps an attempt to wu /woo powerful China. We’re not sure if the Chinese are fond of French adventure comedies?
Though set in the Gallic age, the confluence of cultures, including cult classic music of 20th century, actor-director Canet only ends up doling out a poor mishmash. The French audience are the best judge of the performances. We liked Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his cameo role. The lead protagonists and the antagonists though fail to impress us. Acclaimed French actress Marion Cotillard is amusing as the loud, noisy Cleopatra who dumps Caesar and runs away with the Greek hunk Tabascos.
What’s likable about the film is the immersive production design. If you never knew how Romans, Gallics, ancient Chinese dress, then Middle Kingdom takes you on a colorful detour. The cinematography too is quality. The scene of the Empress, Princess Fu Yi, and Karate walking into a busy China market as commoners in their black Conical Hats is cap-tivating.
The fine technical expertise though counts for nothing if the story, screenplay and the performance go over your hat. Maybe, the original language might offer some unique experience, when it comes on Netflix. Canet and co. though have dropped the hat with this dubbed English version.