In 1984, Joel and Ethan Coen made their auspicious debut with the mean, dirty noir Blood Simple, set in rural Texas. Newcomer (and eventual Coen regular/spouse) Frances McDormand played the abused wife of a rich bar owner (Dan Hedaya), who finds love in the arms of her husband's employee (John Getz). The husband hires a sleazy private detective (the great M. Emmet Walsh) to do away with the adulterous couple, but the detective has other ideas. It's a gripping film, taut and bloody and filled with nasty twists.
A quarter century later, Zhang Yimou, one of China's leading directors, decided to remake Blood Simple, only setting his version in an isolated noodle shop in the Chinese high desert, somewhere in the distant past (possibly the 1600s).
The whole idea is spectacularly weird, and I can only guess that Zhang adapted the Coens' work because he was dying to make a suspense picture but didn't have any original scripts. And when A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop works, it's when Zhang concentrates on those tense, wordless scenes.
Unfortunately, he pads the story with painfully unfunny comic relief: a bucktoothed fatty and his buddy add little, and Sheng Yang Xiao, in the John Getz role, is insufferable with his over-the-top reactions. Blood Simple worked because of its quiet dread. Zhang's remake gives us characters who gasp and scream and run for cover like rabbits. Only the humorless, nearly mute Honglei Sun, in the M. Emmet Walsh role, rises to the occasion. It's no surprise that he gets top billing.
Those who have not seen Blood Simple may enjoy this movie more. As for me, since I'm so familiar with the 1984 original, watching the remake was more of an intellectual exercise, waiting to see if Zhang hits the same key themes and visuals as the Coens did. (He does, for the most part, though he misses out on some crucial story points.)
All in all this is a big disappointment, especially for a filmmaker of Zhang's caliber. He's had a strange career, with a string of subversive, gorgeous tragedies starring his then-girlfriend Gong Li (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad), followed by a number of touching, low-budget films featuring no-name casts (Not One Less, The Road Home, Happy Times), then riding high with big-budget melodramas featuring marauding armies and martial arts (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower). This latest offering suggests that Zhang is at a crossroads, not knowing where to take his career. Let's hope he takes it away from movies like this.