Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blood Simple: A WOMAN, A GUN, AND A NOODLE SHOP

When it was first announced that acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou, best known for beautifully fluid and rightly acclaimed period pieces like Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, would be remaking Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ great debut feature, eyebrows were raised. When the film finally got released in the United States, under the title A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, it was met with shrugs. The biggest surprise to me was to find that the film is not a curio and it is not easily dismissible. It’s an awfully good, and particularly smart, remake as cross-cultural conversation.

The basic story is still a bleak dark comedy about a particularly difficult corpse to hide, but in Yimou’s version the setting is no longer a small, ugly town in Texas. Instead, a similar plot unfolds some centuries earlier in a gorgeous, vibrantly hued, Chinese desert with a vast maze of craggy rocks that surround a humble noodle shop on the outskirts of town. The owner of the shop (Ni Dahong) is an abusive husband who is visited by a crooked lawman (Sun Honglei) who informs him that his wife (Yan Ni) is having an affair with one of their employees (Xiao Shenyang). With several crosscurrents of vengeance, greed, and betrayal setting it up, this situation won’t end well. In the opening scene, a travelling salesman (Julien Gaudfroy) sells the wife a gun. “I own the world's most powerful weapon!” she yells, much to the confusion of her other employees (Cheng Ye and Mao Mao), who are sweet but bumbling.

The cast is exuberantly expressive in their hyperkinetic clownishness that will soon crumble into hilarious pitch-black suspense. Yimou’s characteristically tight control over sound and image, a trait he shares with the Coens, is present in the crisp, efficient building and mingling of tension and comedy that dominates most of the film. One nervously funny scene shows a murderer, nearly discovered during the aftermath of a kill, standing at the base of a winding staircase. The light from the top of the stairs serves as a recurring visual cue of danger. The person who is hesitating about his need to descend opens and closes the door with each changing of his mind. From his nervous perch, sword drawn, the murderer watches this warning light shift bright and dark, bright and dark, each time accompanied by a soft squeak of hinges. It’s a masterful directorial flourish in a film that’s full of striking moments.

Yimou steps boldly, confidently out of his comfort zone making a darkly nerve-wracking slapstick comedy that proves that often our best stories work perfectly across cultures. He doesn’t supplant the Coen brothers’ indelible original, but that’s not the intent. This new film is a grand reimagining that works on its own terms. It’s better than a mere fascinating footnote. It is an experiment that pays off handsomely with a film that’s as engrossing and entertaining as it is unexpected.

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