originally posted on Row Three
Six words that don’t fill me with a lot of confidence: “Remake of a Coen Bros. film.” Four words that do fill me with a lot of confidence: “Directed by Zhang Yimou.” So I was a little torn on what to expect from this film, a period China-set version of Blood Simple. But I figured if someone as stylish and individual as Zhang Yimou wanted to remake the Coen Bros., he probably had some interesting ideas to bring to it, so by and large I was cautiously optimistic. Turns out, that optimism was not misplaced, because I quite enjoyed this both on its own and in relation to the Coen film.
The broad-stroke story remains largely the same. The wife of a small business owner (in this case, the remotely situated Wang’s Noodle Shop), tired of her husband’s abuse, begins an affair with Li, one of the employees. When an unscrupulous guard captain tells Wang what’s going on, he hires the captain to kill the pair of lovers. But there are double-crosses and mistakes and plot twists aplenty in store before all is said and done. But what was formerly a darkly comic noir film has become a bright comic action film, while still retaining the sense of absurdity and morbid inevitability.
Zhang has added another pair of employees who act as slapstick comic relief, a bumbling man-child and a rather hysterical young girl who complicate the plot greatly by trying to break into the boss’s safe to “steal” the back wages he owes them. But the captain has already turned the tables on the boss by this point, and his world-weary but taciturn annoyance at being constantly interrupted as he’s finishing up business worked well for me, though he’s very different from the Coens’ smarmy detective. A lot of the film takes place in silence or nearly so, and a lot depends on the actors’ physical presence to communicate humor, danger, fear, etc, and they all do a fine job making the film consistently engaging and often surprising.
A lot of people are going to complain about the slapsticky nature of the additional characters, as well as Li quite often, but within the world that Zhang has created, it works well and I found it genuinely arresting. Even more arresting are the simply gorgeous landscapes in which all of this takes place, in the deserts of rural China. The red and cream-striped rolling hills, with the sun rising and setting over them, and our characters often nearly swallowed in them as they try to keep their heads in increasingly absurd and hostile circumstances, are breathtaking – not that I expected anything less from someone as known for his use of flamboyant visuals as Zhang. As far as the slapstick goes, if you make it through the first ten minutes (when the wife purchases a pistol from a traveling Persian salesman), you’ll be fine. Also, despite the quick slapstick of some sections, Zhang takes his time with others, with several of the suspenseful scenes drawn out to almost ludicrous deliberateness.
I watched Blood Simple a few days after seeing A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, and was intrigued with how many little moments Zhang took directly from the earlier film (especially in the final sequence as the wife defends herself) but transformed them to live comfortably within his film’s world. This is a fine example of a film that’s both true to its source and unique to itself, obviously a Zhang film through and through, while still honoring the Coens’ original. It’s not perfect – I wish the wife had been given more agency, and the motivation for the captain’s apparent cruelty is not particularly well-realized – but on a scene-by-scene, moment-by-moment basis, the film is more than enjoyable, as long as you’re willing to let it deviate wildly from the tone of the original.