Given the number of foreign movies Hollywood has remade because there is apparently no market for movies with subtitles, it seems only fair other countries would start doing remakes of American movies. Chinese director Zhang Yimou decided to dust off a classic and adapt the Coen brother’s debut film “Blood Simple” (1984). The action is transported from West Texas to a noodle shop in a desert Chinese province a few hundred years ago. There are of course a few notable differences in key scenes, but it is the same overall plot. Same recipe, different cook.
The action kicks off when a Persian weapons trader (Julien Gaudfroy) arrives at the noodle shop for a demonstration of his arsenal. In addition to some sharp swords and even a canon, the Persian sells what he rightfully claims to be the world’s most powerful weapon at that time: a gun. Looking at it as though it were a brand new toy, the owner’s wife (Ni Yang) buys the weapon in secret.
Wang (Dahong Ni), the owner of the noodle shop, is a cruel man who bought his wife years ago but now beats her because she cannot bear him any children. In retaliation she started an affair with Li (Xiao Shen-Yang) a cowardly kitchen intern. Now that she has the gun she plans to do one of three things: divorce her husband, shoot him or shoot herself. However, Wang gets one step ahead of them when Zhang, a police officer (Sun Honglei) informs him of the affair.
Wang confronts the couple, but his wife threatens him with the loaded pistol while her lover cowers in a corner. Refusing to back down, Wang offers the cop to kill them both. Reminding him of the low little police officers, Wang tells him the job would cover his expenses for a few years. They negotiate a price and even agree on an advanced deposit before setting the plan in motion.
Like in the Coen’s original, nothing is that easy and soon the bodies start to pile up, not all of them staying dead. There are many well-shot scenes of characters murdering or burying people in the dead of night under a pale moonlight. The final showdown is a thing of beauty as it involves a duel at the crack of dawn between a character shooting arrows through walls and another one armed with a pistol that can send a man flying ten feet in the air.
If you have seen the original it is impossible not to compare the two, so here goes. The wives in both movies are strong women trying to escape a loveless marriage, however the one in the Yimou version is much fiercer, especially when compared to her cowardly boyfriend.
Then there is the cop. A greedy detective who clearly killed for money in the Coen version, the Chinese character is much harder to read. His actions depict a professional who can kill without remorse, but his mostly expressionless face hides his motivation. Is he killing only for money, or is there an actual sense of honor motivating him? We are initially shown adultery is a punishable crime in that part of the world, so perhaps in his own way he believes he is doing the right thing. The people he kills might disagree with that.
The film’s biggest problem is its variation in tone. Two other chefs at the noodle shop, a man with buckteeth and a young woman with pigtails, are there mostly to add elements of screwball comedy. This does not feel at home in a movie with such violence. Given the events and the murder plot, this should be more of a straight-up thriller. The attempts at humor are inconsistent and rightfully disappear once the blood does start flowing, but before it is a distraction.
This is a worthy effort to transport a good story to a vastly different setting, but if I had to choose I would go with the original. When the Coen brothers direct a thriller, it stays thrilling throughout.
(“A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and is streaming on Netflix.)