China's Zhang Yimou back with Coen brothers remake

by AFP/Francois Bougon, Jan 7, 2010 | Destinations: China / Beijing

BEIJING - Chinese director Zhang Yimou has returned to the big screen after a three-year break with his first comedy -- a remake of the Coen brothers' debut that has drawn the crowds despite sharp criticism.

Zhang, who masterminded the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony last year, has revisited his roots as a film director with "A Simple Noodle Story".

The movie, his first comic thriller, sticks to the plot of "Blood Simple," the 1984 directorial debut by Joel and Ethan Coen that tells the story of a husband who hires a killer to get rid of his wife and her lover.

But Zhang, who won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 for his controversial film "To Live", has transferred the story to a noodle restaurant in China's barren west -- Gansu province -- in imperial times.

The 57-year-old has also called on television comedians to act in the film, and the dialogue is peppered with funny expressions made popular by the Internet.

"If the Coen brothers see it, it will definitely amuse them to see the way in which Zhang Yimou took it on, it is completely different from the original," the director said in an interview with the Beijing News.

"If a foreign director adapted 'Red Sorghum', I would definitely be very curious to see what came of it. The more you put things together that have nothing to do with each other, the more interesting it is," he said.

The film -- Zhang's first since the hugely popular "The Curse of the Golden Flower" in 2006 -- kicked off the traditional year-end holiday season, which ends after the Chinese New Year in mid-February.

"A Simple Noodle Story" had a successful debut, taking in over 100 million yuan (15 million dollars) at the box office in four days, but critics have been less accommodating.

Han Han, a writer popular with the young Chinese, complained of a dated film that looked more like a television movie, giving it a low mark.

"I would give the film a mark of one -- one because he gave up using a multitude of extras and some actors are not bad," he wrote on his blog.

"It is a film that perfectly suits cinemas in provincial towns."

The Hunan Daily newspaper wrote: "Apart from the attractive aspect due to the fact it is an adaptation of the Coen brothers' film, the cultural content seems rather empty."

And Hung Huang, a Chinese media personality, said the film was "too vulgar."

Zhang, for his part, countered criticism by presenting himself as "an ordinary film director just looking to do what he likes to do."

"When I filmed 'To Live' or 'The Story of Qiu Ju', everyone applauded me, saying they were full of humanism. And as soon as I made a commercial film, everyone said that I had fallen low, that I had lost depth," he said.

"Young directors are also like that -- few people will dare say that they want to make commercial films, but more arthouse films to win prizes."

Zhang's producer Zhang Weiping also defended him, saying: "One can sum up in three words the way in which the cinema world has always regarded Zhang Yimou's films -- envy, jealousy and hate."

When he started out, Zhang's work was frowned upon -- and sometimes banned -- by authorities, but he has become one of the official cultural personalities in recent years.

Apart from his work on the Olympic Games, he also helped to orchestrate the lavish festivities for communist China's 60th birthday on October 1 that took place on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

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