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|Cinema Signal: To an American audience it doesn't come off well.|
House of Flying Daggers
Directed by Yimou Zhang
With Ziyi Zhang and Takeshi Kaneshiro
(Discounted DVD from Amazon)
"A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop"
(aka, "A Simple Noodle Store", "The First Gun")
When an American studio or independent movie house does a remake of a foreign film it's never a simple homage to the greatness of the original. The vision of its potential at the boxoffice is the necessary part of the equation, the idea being to put bring the original to a wider audience, home and abroad. Recognizable stars and the English language works wonders toward the commerciality of a film product.
So, it might be reasonable to ask why a Chinese filmmaker would do a remake of an iconic American film when there's no prospect for a similar return from western filmgoers. The answer is that a vast magnification of receipts is a local phenomenon, and paying homage to an American film that greatly affected was the spark of inspiration for Zhang Yimou. The results show that one of the most successful Chinese filmmakers knows his audience and how to utilize the hottest stars of his home cinema.
"A Simple Noodle Story" (its English title in China) trebled its budget in receipts during the first six weeks in China--enough to warrant wider distribution.
Which is all fine and good, but this exaggeration of human behavior, with farcical humor based on a flow of ironies and the wages of greed, does its source, The Coen Brothers, "Blood Simple," and non-Asian American audiences, no favors. The style, one might say, is a cultural thing, and not exactly on an American wave-length. One of the better things that can be said for it from that perspective is that, at least, it's more palatable than the even more grossly exaggerated, "Shaolin Soccer." As far as Asian audiences on the western continents, they're likely to absorb it gleefully without any reference to the original nor dislike for the absurdity of the acting style.
There is also something here for the fans of "Blood Simple," who might well get a tickle out of Yimou's translations in characters, setting and weaponry to the Chinese taste. The Coen's private detective (M. Emmet Walsh), upon whom so much revolves in the story of deceit and double-cross, has become Zhang (Sun Honglei), a straight-ahead, laconic deputy of police whose dishonesty is a matter of practical and corrupt opportunism.
Wang (Dahong Ni) is the rich and tyrranical owner of a roadside inn that includes a noodle shop for lodgers and travelers alike. To say he's unkind to his wife (Ni Yan), who runs the shop, is an understatement, but he mistreats everyone alike. The nerdly noodle chef Li (Shenyang Xiao), the dimwit waiter with oversize buck teeth Zhao (Cheng Ye) and his intellectual counterpart waitress Chen (Mao Mao) haven't been paid in years. Which partly accounts for all the money piling up in Wang's safe.
Inexplicably (but relevant), a similarly exaggerated character in the form of a traveling merchant (Julien Gaudfroy) starts the plot machinations by giving a spiel to the shop staff on the new mechanisms known as "guns," only recently invented in the west. Wifey becomes enamoured of a three-shooter hand gun and buys it. Then, with no more logic than simple showing off, the merchant hauls in a cannon and demonstrates its capabilities by firing it into the barren wasteland of hills and culverts surrounding the property. The cannonball creates a nice plume out there, and the blast attracts a small squad of police on horseback.
This leads to one of the film's highlights, the staff preparing a noodle feast for the lucky cops as a patronly payoff. Wang is especially obsequious before the chief and his deputy Zhang (Honglei Sun) who returns later to inform the innkeeper that he has observed his wife cheating on him with the cook. Mortified and enraged, Wang and Zhang negotiate the payment for killing them both.
The key to the lethal farce that this sets into motion is Zhang's sighting of the contents of the safe when Wang opens it to retrieve the payment. This proves to be the arousal point for a gumbo of misdeeds in a comedy of murder, burial, theft, treachery and desperation. The only thing that doesn't happen here is the so-called romantic affair.
Zhang is pretty exemplary in the role of a hired killer in military garb. He brings a silent charisma that, in presence and acting style, recalls Toshiro Mifune's powerful presence in Japanese samurai films of the 70's and 80's. By Yimou's design, he's worlds away from M. Emmet Walsh in all ways possible except for the commonality of greed.
The director's great love for visual beauty is served by startling, concise compositions and stark lighting, with a pallette of primary colors as in a comic strip or gum wrapper. This applies especially in the limitless region of the rocky mountainscape, deep blue flags against yellow-blue hills, and the raging green-yellow-reds of the kimonos. With this approach, he and director of photography Xiaoding Zhao also achieve painterly images of a remote, hard place and the insular the courtyard square starkly lit by a setting sun and under the cool blue of moonlight, as the characters criss cross in the crazed nighttime activity.
As a means of occidental entertainment I can't rise to recommend something that relies so much on over-demonstrative mannerism. Though I imagine the style plays well before an audience steeped in puppet and Kunqu theatre, I can't pay it respect as an homage or as a match to Yimou's prior achievements like the estimable "The Road Home" and the career-making "Hero" (which he also wrote and produced). Those films are not to be missed by any lover of world-wide cinema. This one, on this continent, is entirely missable. And, you have my permission to do so.
~~ Jules Brenner