Noir in a Chinese Desert: Zhang Yimou Remakes the Coen Bros


Sony Classics

Some cinematic parlor-game questions must remain forever unanswered. What would have been the result if, as briefly rumored, Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan had starred as Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca? How would cinema be different if Rawhide star Clint Eastwood had turned down an obscure Italian director's offer that he appear in a Western shot in Spain? What if, blessed be, the last three Star Wars movies had been directed by Steven Spielberg (or Joss Whedon, or any living filmmaker other than George Lucas)?

By contrast, I presume few film aficionados ever asked the question, what if Zhang Yimou had directed Blood Simple? But for any who might have posed this tantalizing query, we now, uncharacteristically, have been provided with an answer.

When I first heard that Zhang was planning a remake of the Coen brothers' 1984 neo-noir debut I was, like any right-thinking person, delighted. Would Zhang imbue the proceedings with the understated intensity of his feminist fables Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern (both of which were, for a time, banned as heretical in his native China)? Would he offer the aerobatic action of his wuxia epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers?

Sadly, for the most part he does neither. Though elements of the Zhang style are readily evident—chiefly the ravishing cinematography (by frequent collaborator Zhao Xiaoding) and a color palette so rich you could eat it for dessert—the movie, entitled A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, is a less harmonious hybrid, one that shoehorns elements of broad farce and slapstick into the Coens' meticulous tale of lust, deception, and murder. Like the subject of the film itself, it is an unhappy marriage.

The familiar, James M. Cainian types are all here, albeit relocated to a remote desert pass in Western China: the unfaithful wife; her feckless, smitten lover; the possessive husband; the private eye (now rendered a policeman) to whom he contracts his misdeeds. But the mordant wit at the heart of the Coens' tale has been stretched to caricature. The immiserated bride (played by an unknown Frances McDormand in the original) is now a sneering harridan (Yan Yi); her once-taciturn lover, a mincing clown (Xiao Shenyang). The small role of "Meurice" has been expanded, figuratively and literally, into a fat imbecile of a manservant (Cheng Ye) whose exaggerated buckteeth would not be out of place on a prehistoric beaver. And don't get me started on the bit part of a police captain focused on "catching infidelity," who appears to have wandered in from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Among the cast, only Sun Hunglei, as the easily corrupted cop, resists the slide toward vaudeville.

Sun's hard-boiled performance offers its own complications, however. In many of his sequences, Zhang adheres to the Coens' model of taut, hushed suspense, with sounds and images—the drip of blood from dangling fingers, the rasp of lifeless heels dragged across dry earth—faithfully recreated. But these moments of tension alternate uneasily with broad puns and pratfalls. In Blood Simple, the cascading confusions lead to moral solitude and death; in Noodle Shop, the foremost misunderstanding involves a character who mistakes the phrase "must die" for "moose die." Some of the awkwardness, no doubt, is an issue of cultural translation—Zhang has described his vision as in part an homage to the Chinese opera San Cha Kou—but it is an issue nonetheless. (A more literal problem of translation involves the film's crucial, penultimate line, which is wildly misrendered.)

As one might expect, the movie has its visual consolations. A bravura scene in which noodle dough is twirled through the air, pizza-like, recalls (intentionally or not) the Coens' affection for spinning discs (the hula hoop in Hudsucker Proxy, the hubcap in The Man Who Wasn't There, etc.). And Zhang's customarily vivid landscapes continue to astound, from the striated red and gold of the desert hills to the jaundiced moon that hangs low like the eye of a disapproving god.

But these glorious backdrops are let down by the uneven antics in the foreground. In the end, the lesson of Zhang's remake is one that will be familiar to any fan of Blood Simple: When you stumble upon a perfect crime, it's best to leave the body where you found it.