All things considered, a new version of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 dusty film noir “Blood Simple” by an acclaimed Fifth Generation Chinese director was never going to be particularly high on the list of most obvious remakes. Still, with the director in question being Zhang Yimou, whose fascinating career has seen him shift from works of humanism and social relevance to grandiose martial arts epics, the proposition is certainly an interesting one. Having spent a considerable amount of time working on the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and given that he is in the middle of a vague phase of reinvention, the film does mark a change of direction for Zhang, not least since it had a considerably lower budget than most of his previous outings. As well as enjoying a positive response international festivals, being nominated for the prestigious Golden Bear at Berlin, it was a big hit with domestic audiences, pulling in over 250 million yuan at the Mainland box office, where it was released under the wackier though not inaccurate title of “A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop”.
The film actually sticks pretty closely to “Blood Simple”, revolving around a small noodle shop in the remote desert of the Gansu province, run by the aging Wang (Ni Dahong, “The Message”), whose unhappy wife (Yan Ni, “Cow”) is having an affair with young restaurant employee Li (up and coming comedy star Xiao Shenyang). Things come to a head when his wife buys a gun from a travelling foreign merchant, attracting the attentions of the police, including a ruthless officer called Zhang (Sun Honglei), who Wang hires to find proof of her infidelities. Zhang has his own plans, though his scheme to rob the restaurant is complicated by a couple of other restaurant employees who are also trying to get their hands on Wang’s hidden safe.
With remakes generally being associated with lazy film making and cheap cash-ins, it’s somewhat of a surprise just how well Zhang Yimou’s “Blood Simple” works. The film really is a textbook case of how to genuinely revision a classic, using the source material as a starting point without simply regurgitating it, and injecting it with new life and a very different character. Although the idea of transposing the events of the plot to the other side of the world and a good century in the past may be an unlikely one, the setting fits perfectly, with the rugged isolation of Gansu proving a fine thematic match for rural modern day Texas. In this the film does show the director’s usual visual style, with some epic vistas and gorgeous use of local and very Chinese scenery – albeit quite clearly in some instances with the aid of computers, giving the film a strangely surreal air, presumably on purpose.
At the same time, while Zhang does follow the basic structure and events of the original script, he allows for cultural differences and works in a few new twists and nuances, enough so to give the film its own identity. Although obviously fans of the Coen Brothers will know exactly where things are going, the film is tense and fast moving, especially during its latter stages, and sees Zhang taking a far leaner and more narrative driven approach than he has been known for in the past.
The film does indeed have a very different feel to most of his other works, and not simply due to its lower budget, but rather that it also sees him trying his hand at overt comedy for the first time. This is also the main area in which the film does differ from the original, especially since most of the humour is fairly Chinese in nature, for the most part involving some pretty wild slapstick. Whilst this may be very much against what would be expected from Zhang, he proves himself to have an impressively light touch, and the film is equally enjoyable during its notably wackier first half before things turn dark and murderous. Most of the gags are creatively staged and funny, and keep the film moving along at a good pace without ever undermining the ever-shifting and complex betrayals of the plot.
As a result, “Blood Simple” is not only a great remake, but a very entertaining film in its own right, tightly scripted, amusing and tense. On top of that, it stands as a very interesting and effective career move from Zhang Yimou, and one which suggests that he is a far more flexible and creative film maker than might previously have been suspected.
Yimou Zhang(director) / Jianquan Shi, Jing Shang (screenplay)
CAST: Honglei Sun … Zhang
Xiao Shen-Yang … Li
Ni Yan … Wang’s wife
Dahong Ni … Wang
Ye Cheng … Zhao
Mao Mao … Chen
Benshan Zhao … The Captain