The Coen Brothers’ first and arguably best film, Blood Simple, has the inspired simplicity and bemused detachment of a Jim Thompson gutter noir. In other words, it’s natural remake fodder. That said, few would ever imagine the action transported from modern-day Texas to 19th-century China and played, in part, as broad comedy. But that’s how director Zhang Yimou rolls, firmly on a path away from the pretty but politically scabrous films he once made (Raise the Red Lantern).
The foundation is basically the same: The owner of a noodle shop (Dahong Ni) discovers his wife (Ni Yan) is cheating on him with one of his employees (Xiao Shen-Yang), and hires a ne’er-do-well (Honglei Sun) to kill them. But Sun has his own ideas. The genius gimmick is that no one character knows entirely what’s going on, leading to confusion, mistakes, dead bodies and a very funny punchline.
Yimou adds a couple more characters—including a bucktoothed nincompoop—which only means a higher body count. And he reenvisions the characters, sometimes completely. Sun isn’t M. Emmett Walsh’s slimy scoundrel, but a taciturn badass; Yan is closer to a femme fatale, and more sprightly in her acting than Frances McDormand’s deer-in-the-headlights performance.. Shen-Yang is the exact opposite of John Getz’s laconic cuckolder: a mugging, pratfalling dolt who spends his big setpiece hyperventilating so much he could be animated by Tex Avery.
Such changes aside, Yimou respects the source. He clearly relishes the chance to remake the original’s mostly wordless midsection in his own methodical style, and even finds a way to replicate Simple ’s famous bullet-holes-letting-in-shafts-of-light bit without using a pistol. (As per the title, there is only one gun.) Like a lot of recent Yimou films, Noodle Shop is little more than a goofy lark, an excuse to whip out bizarre colors and violently mix tones. It’s got no reason to exist, but it’s enjoyable—mostly because so is Blood Simple.