"The Coen brothers film ["Blood Simple"] is one I liked very much. I saw it in the 1980s in Cannes, but I didn't understand it because they didn't have subtitles in Chinese back then, so I only saw the images," said maverick Chinese director Zhang Yimou in Berlin Sunday afternoon following the premiere of his latest, "San qiang pai an jing qi" (A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop). Set amidst a sumptuous desert landscape in China's Jiayu Pass, Zhang's latest is inspired by the Coens' first film.
(Some spoilers are included in the synopsis below. Skip the following two paragraphs ahead if desired.)
A crotchety boss, Wang, runs a noodle shop with his feisty younger wife and his staff. Wang is self-centered and miserly and often abuses his beautiful wife, though she finds solace in an affair with the shop's shy cook. Whenever she needs to go to town, they have a tryst, which doesn't go unnoticed. Fearing she'll never be happy as long as she's married to Wang, the wife purchases a gun from a Persian merchant. Meanwhile, Zhang, a quiet policeman informs Wang of the affair, which sends him in a rage.
Wang offers a great sum if Zhang will kill his philandering wife and the shy cook. Going on his mission, Zhang returns with a blood stained cloth and the purchased gun. Zhang, however, shoots the boss and plans to steal his safe full of money. His staff, meanwhile, is also in pursuit of the money and what ensues is a hilarious dance of murder, theft and well-choreographed combat.
"[The Coens] gave me permission to do the film, and they sent me an email saying they liked it and added that they were surprised that 'Blood Simple' could be changed so much. They were also amused by it being set in a noodle shop," said Zhang Yimou, who added that he's never met the Coen brothers. "I wanted to transpose this film into a different genre. I didn't want to simply copy it," he added.
Zhang Yimou said that he would not have been able to do this project until fairly recently since, creatively, the Chinese film world was under greater scrutiny from government officials. Times have now changed and continue to evolve, said Zhang.
"Chinese films are now in a good phase. Chinese cinema was much more restricted 10 to 20 years ago...It has now changed. There is a lot of fun in this film, but I wouldn't have been able to do that 20 years ago," he said adding that the film was shot over 87 days. "This film was difficult to shoot. It's a simple story, but it was very different for me. I was trying to enchant the audience."
The version of the film screening at the Berlinale, which is showing in competition here, was different from the Chinese version, which apparently contains more dialogue. Zhang said that he, along with U.S. distributor Sony Pictures Classics, decided to shorten the feature for Western audiences. "This is an abridged version. Some of the humor [in the Chinese version] would probably not translate," the director said.
Visually, "Noodle Shop" is a stunner, with a desert landscape of various stripes of reds, white and various shades of grey set amidst jagged hills against a stunning sky. "This is a real place," said Zhang. "I'm surprised no films that I'm aware of have ever been shot there. Hopefully tourists and other film crews will want to go there."
And next for Zhang Yimou is a potentially more controversial film, which looks at China's more tumultuous recent past. "My next project, which I will begin in April, will be about the Cultural Revolution about young people in love set during that time. It will reflect some of my experiences."