Thursday, March 10, 2011


Zhang Yimou didn't hide the fact that this film, also known as A Simple Noodle Story, is a remake of the Coen Brothers' debut movie Blood Simple, which I guess makes the period Chinese setting the most unlikely setting for a film noir since Anthony Mann set The Black Book in Revolutionary Paris. With Zhang at the helm, it may as well have been David Lean's version of Blood Simple. Older fans and history buffs will get my point. Lean made some great films, with some saying his black and white British films from the Forties are even better than Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. But after a certain point Lean seemed unable to tell a story simply, and his comeuppance came with Ryan's Daughter, a film that seemed appallingly overproduced by the standards of 1970. After the global success of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang seems to have reached that point. Noodle is a visual overdose that swamps mood with spectacle. When characters chase each other through the desolate hills, the hills are so gorgeously desolate that they dwarf the actors in every way. Zhang may have a narrative point to make about the characters' pettiness, but that point also gets dwarfed by the hyperaesthetic location cinematography.

I suppose Zhang has earned the right to make films his way, and we definitely should be grateful that he kept martial arts out of this one -- though now that I think of it, some slam-bang wirework might have accentuated the intentional absurdity of the piece. The closest we get to that sort of thing is an utterly gratuitous noodle-making scene in which three employees pass a pie of dough back and forth, each spinning and spreading it out until it's like a tent over their heads. Zhang piles the silliness on early, introducing a flamboyant "Persian" merchant who sells the Frances McDormand counterpart a gun and tries to sell her a cannon. For some reason the Persian and the Chinese woman haggle partly in English, and of course the cannon must be fired. The noise of the explosion introduces the soldier who'll play M. Emmet Walsh's part in the story. The first third of the movie is broadly comic, as if Zhang were remaking Raising Arizona by mistake. Everything is over the top, from the mere presence of a fat bucktoothed oaf of a noodle chef to the usual Asian indulgence of crying and screaming. The plot of Blood Simple is being followed fairly closely, but the tone is totally off. Zhang isn't necessarily obliged to reproduce the original's tone, but his own tone seems off. He can't balance plot, performances and visuals in a way that rings true, at least for American viewers.

An unfaithful wife...

A vengeful husband...

A man who kills for money....

Past the halfway point, however, as Noodle grows more recognizably imitative of Blood Simple, Zhang's commitment to reproducing the original's suspense brings the film under greater control. Things slow down as Zhang ratchets up the tension, putting his soldier over as a convincing menace to set up the final showdown with the wife. Apart from the aesthetic excess of slow-mo shots of arrows flying through the house, the climax works nearly as well as it did the first time around. The Coens wrote a strong scene, and I was tempted to say that it works in spite of Zhang, but I realize how easily it could have been botched. Zhang deserves credit for reclaiming suspense and some entertainment from what looked like a lost cause.

Anyway, it's nice to see the influence running the other way for once. We're so used to seeing Hollywood poaching foreign cinema for story ideas that it's almost reassuring in a backhanded way to see foreigners borrowing from American movies. Of course, Zhang didn't make Noodle to preempt Blood Simple from Chinese screens, so it's not quite the same thing that Hollywood usually does. Since the Coens themselves aren't above remakes, and even did a good one last year, seeing one of their own films remade is kind of like the circle of life in motion, to be sappy about it.

Straight from Sony Pictures Classics, here's the American trailer, for which the film's unoriginality is its main selling point.

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