'Asterix,' 'Heart' bank on Olympic fever

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NEW YORK -- What's Chinese for "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em"? There may not be a direct translation, but that's exactly what the 11th Shanghai International Film Festival plans to do by showcasing a handful of imported sports-related films this June 14-22, just weeks before the Beijing Olympics.

The largest -- or at least most expensive -- of the films that could help the SIFF share Beijing's sporting spotlight is likely to be "Asterix at the the Olympic Games," the French live-action version of the 1968 comic of the same name. When introducing it at an annual French cinema event in China in April, production giant Pathe's CEO Jerome Seydoux told local media: "We can almost say the film is specially shot for China." The comment wasn't a bad technique to smooth the way for a difficult-to-obtain import license, granted to only 20 films each year.

But "Asterix" might also be running with another handicap. The Chinese were in protest against all things French in the wake of human rights protestors assaulting a wheelchair-bound Chinese female athlete bearing the Olympic torch in Paris. The protests have faded as China's attention has shifted to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province on May 12, but "Asterix" still awaits word from the censors, says Christine Pernin, the head of the French cultural promotion organization UniFrance. "We hope we will get it a wide release before the Olympics begin," she adds.

Another sports movie aiming to ride the wave of Chinese sports fervor is "Heart of a Dragon." Inspired by a true story, it echoes the life of a wheelchair-bound athlete, Rick Hansen, who competed for Canada in the 1984 Olympic games and also won 19 wheelchair marathons, including three world championships. "Heart" was made with the blessing of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, a group long backed by former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping's disabled son, Deng Pufang.

Writer-director Michael French says the film has been cleared by the Film Bureau for import, and he is in discussions with the China Film Group about distribution. In a nation where it's still rare to find wheelchair accessible sidewalks, let alone buildings, and many disabled people are barred from attending normal schools, distribution of "Heart" could make a powerful statement. "This film took us 10 years to make," says French, "but the challenges disabled people face in China and everywhere still need to be addressed."
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