As anyone who's been to the theater in the past year or so knows, the American film industry has been rehashing and recycling any and all ideas it can get the rights to remake, both from these shores and others, in an endless quest to avoid coming up with anything original. Once in a blue moon, though, the process goes the other way, and the latest example is Zhang Yimou's A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop, a Chinese-language remake of Joel and Ethan Coen's feature debut, Blood Simple.
The biggest and most obvious difference between the two stories is that Yimou's is set in 19th century China, but otherwise, the stories are basically the same: a woman is having an affair with a co-worker at the establishment where she works -- an establishment that happens to be run by the same husband she's cheating on. In Blood Simple, these roles were played, respectively, by Frances McDormand, John Getz and Dan Hedaya; here they're covered by Yan Ni, Xiao Shen-Yang and Ni Dahong. The husband hires an investigator, first to find out about the affair, and then to kill the wife and her lover (M. Emmet Walsh in the Coen picture, Sun Honglei in the Yimou remake). Through accident, misunderstanding and coincidence, the situation spirals out of control, resulting in the deaths of not one, but several people.
Although the story unfolds in essentially the same manner, the dynamic of the characters is also different. For most of Blood Simple's runtime, Getz is essentially the "hero" (well, as far as one can say Blood Simple has a hero), Hedaya the villain, McDormand a bystander, and Walsh as a slimy, dangerous wildcard. Here, Wang's Wife (never given a name) is really the driving force. She wants a divorce, and although she seems to be genuinely attracted to him, she essentially looks at her affair with her wimpy co-worker, Li, as a way to a happier life. The detective character, meanwhile, is now a cop named Zhang. Zhang is the opposite of the sweaty, weaselly Visser: a methodical, intelligent hard-bargainer who doesn't have any qualms about getting his hands dirty, as long as he gets to live a peaceful, quiet life somewhere far away when all is said and done.
For most of its runtime, Noodle Shop (or A Simple Noodle Story, the original Chinese title) is just as clever as the Coen Brothers' picture and twice as fun. The Coen original is dark and twisted, whereas Yimou's is closer to Kung Fu Hustle with more double-crosses. After the opening, featuring swordplay and a giant cannon, two other employees (Ye Cheng and Mao Mao) provide comic relief, slinking around gossiping and hoping to get paid, oblivious to the various violent acts occurring around them. There is also a fairly dazzling display of noodle making, as well as several subtle nods to the original (my favorite being Zhang's police armor, which is the same shade of navy blue as Walsh's VW bug in the original).
I'm not as well acquainted with Yimou's work as I should be, but he's got a similar eye for comedy as the Coens, letting jokes play out visually using pauses and silence. The remake is set in the middle of an anonymous desert with no other buildings in sight, populated by characters who want to escape the wasteland. Where that somewhere is supposed to be is unclear, but it must be somewhere, just like the police (bearing a greatly amusing noise-maker siren stick that sounds suspiciously like a modern police car) must be coming from a place with a police station and going somewhere filled with crime. It's a sparse movie, but Yimou makes the sparsity into a punchline.
About 80% of the way through, though, Yimou runs out of inventiveness, and the ending disappointingly plays out as closely to the Coen film as anything in the movie, finally crossing the "too far" line right at the end with a single shot that inadvertantly emphasizes how little all of the aesthetic and character tweaks have actually amounted to. Even taking into account the inventiveness the movie frequently displays, the ending is smothered by an unshakable air of laziness that hurts the film as a whole. The idea of a foreign director tackling an American film like Blood Simple is pretty appealing, especially if that director plans to bring a whole new style and setting to the table, but (whether it's true or not), it feels like Yimou lost interest in the concept before he was done shooting it. A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop is funny, stylish, and sort of meaningless -- an intriguing directorial exercise, definitely, but short of a full-blooded effort.
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