Chinese director Zhang Yimou makes films of epic sweep (Hero) and tragic depth (Raise the Red Lantern). He's not known for laughs, so learning that Zhang might remake Joel and Ethan Coen's 1984 debut film, Blood Simple, might strike some as a bit like reading that Martin Scorsese will direct the next Transformers flick.
Scorsese won't be doing that, at least not that we've heard, but Zhang did take a stab at Blood Simple; his version is called A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, and it's quite faithful to the Coens' bloody comic noir.
It's also quite different. Relocated from flat and empty Texas to hilly and vacant China, Zhang's film has a lot of fun with the original material, along with some smiles at the expense of the director's own style. But the pacing is too deliberate, and much of the humor doesn't translate; the result is a would-be farce that's more droll than uproarious.
While Zhang offers some of his trademark dazzling vistas, he emulates Blood Simple's low-angle camera positions and claustrophobic interiors. He and scripters Xu Zhengchao and Shi Jianquan also retain much of the original plot, despite having moved it to the Chinese outback -- in what seems to be the 17th century.
Greedy, abusive Wang (Ni Dahong) owns a noodle shop nestled among picturesque rust-striped peaks, and although the shop sees few customers, he's very rich. His much younger wife (Yan Ni), however, is having an affair with a timid cook (Xiao Shenyang), so the shop owner hires Zhang (Sun Honglei), a local policeman who specializes in catching adulterers, to kill his wife and her lover. But Zhang alters the plan, because he's more interested in the contents of Wang's safe than in the crimes of the lovers.
Meanwhile, a slow-witted waiter and waitress (Cheng Ye and Mao Mao) are also trying to jimmy the safe, to collect unpaid back wages. Their attempts make for multiple close calls with the other characters who have nefarious business in Wang's office.
As Blood Simple fans should expect, Noodle Shop is a comedy of presumed deaths and unexpected revivals, with some victims flat out refusing to stay in their shallow graves. Bloody mishaps are heightened by the traditional Chinese dread of vengeful ghosts, which causes some characters to shriek, swoon or shake with abject fear. This sort of stagey mugging, which draws on the performance style of Beijing Opera, seems far too broad onscreen.
And some of the original comedy reportedly came from the use of Zhang's native Shaanxi dialect, which loses its humor in subtitles. The jokes that work are gentler, and often tied to the story's formal structure. At the story's beginning, Wang's never-named wife buys a three-barrelled pistol from an English-speaking "Persian" traveling salesman. You know the movie's almost over when the third bullet is fired.
Zhang lampoons his own flair for color-coding, outfitting the police all in blue (complete with an anachronistic "siren") and the wimpy cook in pink. The filmmaker also tweaks his forays into kung-fu cinema by making an action movie whose most dynamic sequence involves not a fist fight or a sword duel, but noodle-making.
About halfway into Noodle Shop, dialogue nearly vanishes and the rest of story is told mostly with motion. That makes the ironic final line all the funnier. It's not a knee-slapper, just a suitably deadpan capper to a movie that sets modest chuckles against a vast landscape.