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Hong Coen Phooey

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 15, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 15, 2010 |

For years, theatre directors have been co-opting the classics, most notably Shakespeare and Sophocles, and setting them in alternate realities. Macbeth becomes about mob hits, The Merchant of Venice is now the Merchant of Venus, or giving Titus Andronicus an all black cast and setting it in a backyard barbecue. Sometimes the dialogue is modernized or politicized, sometimes genders are swapped, sometimes characters are dropped entirely. Occasionally the gist of the original exists but the rest is completely overcast with unique touches. I would go so far as to deem the Coen Brothers’ work, particularly the early efforts, as classics worthy of Shakespeare and Sophocles. For fuck’s sake, Miller’s Crossing is in iambic pentameter. So when I heard that Zhang Yimou, director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, was remaking Blood Simple, I was taken aback, but it kind of made sense. After all, Hollywood has been repackaging Asian cinema with alarming frequency over the last decade. The Asians just had better taste. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but had I swigged absinthe in between shots of Robitussin I could not have hallucinated the final result. Zhang Yimou took the dark, atmospheric, tense, hard-boiled and gritty drama that was Blood Simple and turned it into a slapstick broad-comedy set in feudal China. All the same elements are there: the cheating wife, the murder pact with the detective, the double crossing. Only it’s done in bright vibrant colors like a parlour comedy gone horribly awry. Most astonishing is that for the most part it fucking works, and in some places, it actually makes more sense than the original. I still can’t decide whether or not I think A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop is a good movie, because I’m still trying to pick my jaw up off the ground.

The landscape of the film is vivid and gorgeous, like something Tarsem would create if he knew what a plot was. Rolling mountainous vistas in vibrant colors. A Persian weapons merchant sells the wife of Wang’s Noodle Shop one of the most powerful new weapons in his arsenal — a blunderbuss. It only fires three bullets, but against men with arrows and swords, it means she has power. We’re introduced to the characters in a panorama that would make Baz Luhrman vomit green fairies. Everyone’s decked out in traditional garb — but in massively garish colors: silky pinks, greens, blues, and oranges. It was like the costume designer was sponsored by Crayola and a bout of diarrhea after eating Lucky Charms. Yimou’s films are always typified by bright colors and exciting ballettic action. It’s as if he’s flourishing his own vision before immediately mashing it up with the Coens.
And mash it up he does. As far as the plot goes, it’s Blood Simple, practically page for page. In some instances, he’s only modifying certain elements slightly to fit the times. Instead of M. Emmet Walsh’s seedy private detective, we’ve got an officer from the special police investigating charges of bribery. The bar becomes the titular noodle shop, complete with a gratuitously glorious dough preparation sequence that made the little kung fu hustle in me stand up and take a Chow. A knife becomes scissors, the detective’s pistol becomes a bow and arrow, a car is replaced by a horse drawn carriage — little details are swapped to create an overall picture. Stylistically, it’s brillant, and part of the joy of the film is seeing the Texas grit transmogrified into feudal Chinese technique.

But Yimou makes some huge changes that are extremely bold. Muerice the bartender’s side story is swapped out for one involving two bumbling assistants, a buck-toothed simpleton and his Heidi-haired twit sidekick. It’s a weird move, but as the film progresses, it actually makes the heist portion of the film make a hell of a lot more sense, and sets up the latter elements much better. Also, the wife and her lover get a tremendous makeover. I always felt Frances McDormand’s Abby was a pitifully weak Coen character and that John Getz’s Ray was a bit of a moron. They shift as the Coen’s film progresses, where Ray melts down and Abby finds strength. In Yimou’s version, Wang’s wife is all fire and spit and Li, her lover, is a sissy and a coward. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, especially as they perform the same swap, with the same results. Out of respect for people who haven’t seen either, the ending is done almost exactly the same, so considering the fates of the characters, to have Li suddenly gain confidence and to have Wang’s wife running around screaming and panicking like Kevin in Home Alone adds an intriguing touch to the story. It particularly works in making the film a broad comedy. Which was the goddamnedest thing. There’s lots of shouting and slapping, like it was a Three Stooges comedy. Wang’s wife gets shitfaced and passes out spread-eagled on her bed, snoring like a champ.

As a comedy following the plot to a dark, gritty thriller, there are some moments where the film starts to drag. But it’s still a breathtaking experiment. If you watch A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop — and honestly you should, if only to appreciate the sheer audacity of what happens — you sincerely must watch Blood Simple beforehand. The visuals will arrest you, and trying to line up the two stories is most of the fun of watching the film. The only comparison I can come up with to give you the same sense of jarring would be if they remade Se7en as a Sesame Street musical.