The unlikely Chinese remake of the Coen Brothers’ noir classic is better than you may have been led to believe.
There have been so many US remakes of Asian movies that it seems only fair that the trend be reversed once in a while, and although The Coen Brothers’ debut neo-noir Blood Simple seems an odd choice to translate to feudal China, the end results of Zhang Yimou’s 2009 re-imagining (and yes, that’s an appropriate phrase in this case) are pretty pleasing.
Relocating the action to a noodle shop in the middle of the desert, the film tells the story of miserable, greedy and abusive boss Wang (Ni Dahong), who is prone to cheating his employees and beating his young wife (Yan Ni), who in turn is having an affair with an employee. Discovering this, he hires corrupt local policeman Zhang (Sun Honglei) to kill the pair. But as anyone who has seen the original film could tell you, things soon descend into a series of double crosses and misunderstandings…
The story of Blood Simple might seem pure Noir, but it’s clearly a universal enough idea that it can translate to entirely alien settings – at times while watching this, I began to wonder what other styles could be adapted to a culturally diverse remake with as much success. Zhang – director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers – is arguably a better filmmaker than the Coens (who, for me, have never matched their stunning debut, instead becoming critical darlings for a series of increasingly smug movies – and lest any of their fans complain about this, let’s not forget that they are no strangers to the dodgy remake themselves, as anyone who suffered through The Ladykillers could attest) and while some of the none-too-subtle slapstick humour on display during the first part of this film might be a bit much for anyone not hardened to Chinese cinema, his building of tension and dramatic action scenes can’t be faulted. As you would expect from his previous work, this film looks gorgeous.
There’s fun to be had watching a couple of iconic visual moments from the original film recreated here (I’ll let you find out which ones for yourself), and on the whole, the film does a splendid job of capturing the theme of the first film – namely that murder is rarely as straight-forward as the movies might suggest.
This film has had something of a critical mauling and bombed badly in America (where it was released, rather pathetically, as A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop) – it seems US audiences will respond to Chinese movies only if they fulfill the exotic martial arts fantasies of Zhang’s other films. In Britain, the film vanished into immediate straight-to-DVD obscurity, hampered with a generic cover that didn’t even hint at what the film was about, instead making it look like any other period sword and socky piece. You can now pick the DVD up for as song.
I rather suspect that the ciritical dismissal had as much to do with the Coens being sacred cows as any failings in this film, as well as a parochial annoyance at a Chinese filmmaker taking such a fundamentally American concept and twisting it to his own style. But whats good for the goose is good for the gander. I’d suggest you ignore the naysayers and seek this out. You might be pleasantly surprised.