The setup is basically the same; a rich man hires someone to bump off his cheating wife and her lover, and everything goes violently wrong. But things don’t start out that way. Instead, Yimou brings us wacky comedy, complete with vivid green and pink costumes, wandering Persian salesmen and over-the-top slapstick performances.
The operatic pantomime wears thin quite quickly, but the same can’t be said of the visuals. Within ten minutes we’re reminded who’s behind the camera by a stunning sequence in which the kitchen staff make noodles. Spinning the dough in the air one-handed, they chuck floating discs back and forth with dexterity usually reserved for Yimou’s balletic swordplay.
It’s the closest you get to the epic battles seen in House of Flying Daggers (2004) or Hero (2002). Keeping the scale decidedly small, Yimou seems to pay tribute to the Coens’ pared-down production. Even the wilderness gets some solid screen time, the orange desert striped by the wind against a striking blue sky.
Equally engaging is the adulterous core of the story. Ni Yan’s unfaithful wife is convincingly hysterical as she buys a gun (“the most powerful weapon in the world”) to free her from her mean husband, Wang (Ni Dahong). Crueler than the original film’s cuckold, Wang is a horrible piece of work who short-changes his staff without a second thought. No wonder she prefers the clueless Li (Sheng-Yang Xiao).
But these men are nothing compared to corrupt cop Zhang (Sun Honglei). Unlike the Coens’ manic, talkative killer, played memorably by M. Emmet Walsh, Zhang carries out his bloody actions in silence. It gives a moral edge to the double-crossing plot, introducing a dark, gritty tenor completely at odds with the brightly coloured opening.
This flagrant inconsistency is part of the bewildering charm of Zhang Yimou’s remake. Peppering the plot with Shakespearean moments of comic relief from the supporting cast, the tonal shift is pulled off with a confidence that carries you with it.
When the tense domestic climax arrives, the director departs from elegant tracking shots to rush through the noodle shop with handheld urgency. It’s here that Yimou is most faithful to the original script, leaving behind all hints of comedy in favour of wall-punching confrontation. He’s even bold enough to echo the Coens’ final, bold shot.
Internationally titled A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, the film failed miserably at the box office in America (hence the straight-to-DVD UK release), but there’s no doubting the style on show here. Knives are swapped for scissors and guns for swords, but like the 1984 masterpiece, Zhang Yimou’s Blood Simple (2011) shows a director capable of extraordinary things. And this oddly accurate translation of Blood Simple is something truly extraordinary. Not great, but extraordinary.