Back in 1984, two unknown ironists from Minnesota made one of the quintessential Texas movies. In Blood Simple, the Coen brothers captured the spirit of our state by showing that its wide-open spaces weren’t merely excuses for great cinematography, but symbols of a pervasive existential vacancy. Blood Simple is a study in isolation that uses the vastness of the West Texas flatlands to show just how small and alone we are.
This week, legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou is screening his remake of Blood Simple at the Berlin Film Festival. To Western audiences, Zhang is most famous for directing the colossal opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and opulent, color-coordinated martial-arts epics like Curse of the Golden Flower. He’s most in his element when shooting elaborately choreographed fight scenes involving thousands of extras flying through chrysanthemum fields. So it’s a little strange that his latest, A Simple Noodle Story, is a remake of a stark, ink-black film noir about a West Texas bar owner who hires a private investigator to kill his wife and her lover.
Such is the nature of our incredible shrinking world of international film, where the cross-pollination of ideas and cultures leads moviemakers to reinvent stories from other continents. For years, American studios have been tempting Asian filmmakers like Ang Lee and John Woo to Hollywood while stealing shamelessly from other Asian directors like Hideo Nakata and Wai-keung Lau. Before that, John Sturges stole from Akira Kurosawa, who himself transformed John Ford’s Westerns into something unmistakably Japanese. A Simple Noodle Story is another product of this topsy-turvy cinematic globalization: a Chinese filmmaker famous for his humorless ancient soap operas filming an absurd slapstick remake of a dead-serious Texas film noir made by two Jewish absurdists from Minnesota.
To put his stamp on Blood Simple, Zhang has moved the action from a saloon in 1980s West Texas to a noodle shop in the desert of China. The movie’s themes are still there—jealousy, greed, lust, self-delusion, self-destruction—but now they’re set against the backdrop of a culture in which the communal is more important than the individual. Gone is the original’s tone of suffocating cosmic isolation, replaced by a frenetic slapstick sense of humor that explodes into choreographed hip-hop dance numbers on a whim, as if the film’s heroes are hoping that clanging noise and elaborate group spectacle might keep despair away. The transformation, I think, boils down to the difference between American and Chinese culture: Where the Coen brothers view tragedy as a likely consequence of detached individualism run amok, Zhang sees it as the price we pay for wandering through the world together.
Ironically, the result is a movie less likely to appeal to American audiences than Zhang’s other Chinese epics. But Zhang knows the best way to pay homage to a movie as steeped in cultural and geographical idiosyncrasy as Blood Simple is by replacing the culture, changing the geography and running off madly in the opposite direction. That’s how you turn something you love into something your own.