Remakes? They hold no interest for award-winning Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
And yet here he comes with “A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop,” his remake of the Coen brothers’ 1985 debut feature, “Blood Simple.”
“At the time I was looking for material for my next film, there were no good screenplays,” Zhang, 59, says through a translator in a telephone interview. “As a principal, I like to avoid remakes. But when it comes to a situation where I couldn’t find a script I liked, then I turned to the possibility of a remake.”
Zhang’s films range from the cool, deliberate beauty of “Raise the Red Lantern” to imaginative, even operatic martial-arts stories such as “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” So he seems an unlikely candidate to adapt the darkly comic film-noir of the distinctly American Coens. But it was the first film that came to mind.
“I first saw it over 20 years ago at the Cannes Film Festival and it left quite an impression,” he says. “I never went back to watch it but the impression lingered. In the last few years, when nothing grabbed me, I thought, why not try a Chinese version of that film? If I did a reinterpretation, I could speed up the process because I had solid material to work with.
“I wanted to take the original and attempt a Chinese-style interpretation. I wanted to inject aspects of Chinese culture and, in that way, adapt it to a new context. One aspect is the theatrical element that I tried to incorporate. I’m indebted to the Peking Opera for that.”
Still, Zhang found it challenging to adapt a story set in the late 20th-century Texas flatlands to a Chinese setting. He eventually chose a period in Ming Dynasty-era China, in a remote desert outpost. He set the story in and around a noodle shop, instead of the honky-tonk bar where the story of infidelity, betrayal and murder was originally set.
“The most difficult part was finding the basis of the logic beneath the story,” Zhang says. “It was an organic, contemporary story. The mood and outlook had a lot to do with the story. In moving it to traditional China, the most difficult thing was making that aspect make sense, so that the actions make sense in that time.”
That included finding a way to introduce a gun – in this case, an unusual three-shot derringer-style pistol – into a period dominated by swords, spears and bows-and-arrows: “We had to dig through a lot of historic material to make it work. We finally decided the gun had to come in from outside. That was the most logical explanation.”
The film came on the heels of Zhang’s work directing the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for which he received international acclaim. His work on the Olympics kept him occupied for a solid two years leading up to the event.
“It was a very long process,” he says. “It was a great experience through which I learned so much. Just the scale of it – I was working with tens of thousands of participants. So it was a great source of experience on an international scale. I was dealing with artists and producers from around the world. For me, in terms of interpersonal relationships, it was a wonderful experience.”
Zhang’s work has brought him critical attention in the United States, and made stars of actors such as Gong Li; he’s also worked with such Hollywood-friendly performers as Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat. But, while filmmakers from around the world have gravitated over the years to Hollywood, in hopes of making a movie in America, the idea holds little appeal to Zhang.
“Since I don’t speak English, there’s not much for me to do outside China,” he says. “Most of my inspiration comes from China, although it’s possible that my next film might involve American actors. But I live in China. It’s an environment I understand. I know the people and the culture. I’ve been to the U.S. and I don’t understand it in the same way. If I leave behind my roots, it would be difficult to shoot a good movie. I’d be out of my element.
“I’m quite happy that many of my films have done well abroad. Film is a cultural bridge that helps humankind understand each other. I’m humbled when one of my films does well in America. But there are so many stories in China waiting to be told. But I’ll have to wait until China is open enough to shoot them.”
Zhang faces a milestone in November, when he will turn 60. He laughs when asked what it will mean to reach that age.
“I just hope I can maintain my good health and do interesting work,” he says. “For many Chinese, the age of 60 is a landmark age, representing the start of a new cycle. When I was 30, I thought 60 was old. Now I look at it as a new beginning, a new page in my life. I just hope I can keep my health and make a couple more good films.”