Mao Mao as Chen in the movie "A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop." (Bai Xiaoyan / Sony Pictures…)
In the autumn of 2008, China's best-known filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, found himself at a career crossroads.
The multiple Oscar nominee had spent the previous two years away from movies, orchestrating the opening and closing ceremonies for Beijing's Olympics, an eye-popping $300-million extravaganza of pyrotechnics and synchronized acrobatics that wowed a global TV audience. And after a fabled three-decade career delivering such critically hailed films as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Hero" (the most internationally successful Chinese film export to date), Zhang could greenlight almost any project he wanted, enjoying a Robert Pattinson-like media ubiquity and James Cameron level of box-office clout. Problem was, without any original movie material in development, Zhang didn't know what to do next.
Then inspiration struck: a remake! "I wanted to do something to relate my humor," Zhang said by phone from Beijing. "Something light."
Paradoxically, the filmmaker's first thought was to tackle a "cold and distant" American movie he had seen at the Cannes Film Festival nearly a quarter century earlier. A film he had seen without even comprehending any of the dialogue absent Chinese subtitles. A work that had left a "deep impression" on Zhang: Joel and Ethan Coen's mordant 1984 thriller "Blood Simple."
Cut to the present day with Zhang's visually lush, slapstick caper "A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop" reaching American theaters Friday in limited release. The $12-million film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year and was a hit upon release in China, raking in $38 million; here it has already gotten critical props from watchdogs at Variety, Indiewire and Slash Film. Moreover, the Sony Pictures Classics-distributed movie's journey to the screen speaks volumes about Zhang's prestige as a filmmaker -- he's the only person the Coens have ever given their remake blessing -- and it highlights a certain coming of age for Chinese cinema.
"Very, very few Chinese films are remakes," Zhang explained through a translator. "That has to do with financial considerations. International copyrights cost a lot of money. As for my own adaptation, when I told my producers what I wanted to do, they said, 'Forget that. It's way too expensive!'"
Just don't lump "A Woman, a Gun" in with recent by-the-numbers Hollywood movie reboots such as "The A-Team" or "Fame." Where "Blood Simple" follows a contemporary Texas saloon owner's strangled effort to put out a hit on his wife and her lover for their adulterous affair, the flavor of Zhang's movie is as piquantly Chinese as Hoisin sauce.
The film situates "Blood Simple's" double-crosses and misunderstandings, grand mal scheming and thievery, in desolate Gansu province, somewhere between the Great Wall of China and the Silk Road, during the late Ming dynasty of the 17th century. The original film's perfidious private eye ( M. Emmet Walsh), oily gin-joint owner ( Dan Hedaya) and his wife (played by Frances McDormand) have been respectively reincarnated as a granite-faced local constable with a gigantic sword, a curmudgeonly restaurateur and a shrill adulteress with a gymnastic talent for making hand-pulled noodles.
As well, where "Blood Simple" exists almost as a formal exercise in the cinematic usage of darkness, shadows and light, color fairly explodes from the screen in "A Woman, a Gun." And with several of China's most beloved comedians in prominent roles, it is also shot through with a goofy brand of Peking Opera-inspired comedy that has proved somewhat baffling to many non-Chinese viewers.
According to Zhang, 59, he chose to set "A Woman, a Gun" in pre-modern China in an effort to side step government censorship that has prevented several of his greatest films from being seen in his homeland. "By changing it into a traditional Chinese background, I could attain more freedom," the filmmaker said. "The further back you go, the fewer political taboos there are and the better off you are in terms of political sensitivities."
Although the film is set at a time when guns were a recent invention -- the wife's purchase of a three-barreled pistol from a Silk Road trader is crucial to the plot -- "A Woman, a Gun's" action adheres closely to its source material. The noodle shop owner pays the policeman to bump off his missus and the feckless cook with whom she is cheating. Manipulations build upon misunderstandings and coverups beget ever greater crimes until the bodies start piling up en route to a bloody climax.