The multiple Oscar nominee had spent the previous two years away from movies, orchestrating the opening and closing ceremonies for Beijing's Olympics, an eye-popping $300-million extravaganza of pyrotechnics and synchronized acrobatics that wowed a global TV audience. And after a fabled three-decade career delivering such critically hailed films as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Hero" (the most internationally successful Chinese film export to date), Zhang could greenlight almost any project he wanted, enjoying a Robert Pattinson-like media ubiquity and James Cameron level of box-office clout. Problem was, without any original movie material in development, Zhang didn't know what to do next.
Then inspiration struck: a remake! "I wanted to do something to relate my humor," Zhang said by phone from Beijing. "Something light."
Paradoxically, the filmmaker's first thought was to tackle a "cold and distant" American movie he had seen at the Cannes Film Festival nearly a quarter century earlier. A film he had seen without even comprehending any of the dialogue absent Chinese subtitles. A work that had left a "deep impression" on Zhang: Joel and Ethan Coen's mordant 1984 thriller "Blood Simple."
Cut to the present day with Zhang's visually lush, slapstick caper "A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop" reaching American theaters Friday in limited release. The $12-million film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year and was a hit upon release in China, raking in $38 million; here it has already gotten critical props from watchdogs at Variety, Indiewire and Slash Film. Moreover, the Sony Pictures Classics-distributed movie's journey to the screen speaks volumes about Zhang's prestige as a filmmaker -- he's the only person the Coens have ever given their remake blessing -- and it highlights a certain coming of age for Chinese cinema.
"Very, very few Chinese films are remakes," Zhang explained through a translator. "That has to do with financial considerations. International copyrights cost a lot of money. As for my own adaptation, when I told my producers what I wanted to do, they said, 'Forget that. It's way too expensive!'"
Just don't lump "A Woman, a Gun" in with recent by-the-numbers Hollywood movie reboots such as "The A-Team" or "Fame." Where "Blood Simple" follows a contemporary Texas saloon owner's strangled effort to put out a hit on his wife and her lover for their adulterous affair, the flavor of Zhang's movie is as piquantly Chinese as Hoisin sauce.
The film situates "Blood Simple's" double-crosses and misunderstandings, grand mal scheming and thievery, in desolate Gansu province, somewhere between the Great Wall of China and the Silk Road, during the late Ming dynasty of the 17th century. The original film's perfidious private eye ( M. Emmet Walsh), oily gin-joint owner ( Dan Hedaya) and his wife (played by Frances McDormand) have been respectively reincarnated as a granite-faced local constable with a gigantic sword, a curmudgeonly restaurateur and a shrill adulteress with a gymnastic talent for making hand-pulled noodles.
As well, where "Blood Simple" exists almost as a formal exercise in the cinematic usage of darkness, shadows and light, color fairly explodes from the screen in "A Woman, a Gun." And with several of China's most beloved comedians in prominent roles, it is also shot through with a goofy brand of Peking Opera-inspired comedy that has proved somewhat baffling to many non-Chinese viewers.
According to Zhang, 59, he chose to set "A Woman, a Gun" in pre-modern China in an effort to side step government censorship that has prevented several of his greatest films from being seen in his homeland. "By changing it into a traditional Chinese background, I could attain more freedom," the filmmaker said. "The further back you go, the fewer political taboos there are and the better off you are in terms of political sensitivities."
Although the film is set at a time when guns were a recent invention -- the wife's purchase of a three-barreled pistol from a Silk Road trader is crucial to the plot -- "A Woman, a Gun's" action adheres closely to its source material. The noodle shop owner pays the policeman to bump off his missus and the feckless cook with whom she is cheating. Manipulations build upon misunderstandings and coverups beget ever greater crimes until the bodies start piling up en route to a bloody climax.
It represents a departure for Zhang, whose films have generally fallen into two categories. There are his gritty epics, such as "Ju Dou" and "To Live" from his early filmography, that showcase China's struggles with war, poverty and political malfeasance (and have been consequently banned in the director's homeland for "subversive" content). And then there are his more recent martial arts thrillers, such as "House of Flying Daggers" or "Hero" -- films that critics complain implicitly glorify the Chinese state and have won Zhang favoritism with the political elite while also saddling him with a reputation as a kind of Leni Riefenstahl for China's authoritarian regime.
"As he shifted to the martial arts epics, Zhang was criticized as selling out to the Chinese government and pandering to what officials wanted," said Michael Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara, who extensively interviewed the director for his book "Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers." "He's always rejected those criticisms, though. It's a natural evolution. People tend to be rebellious when they're young and after a while, they become the establishment."
As polarizing a figure as he is in his homeland, Zhang's international acclaim allowed him certain opportunities when it came to acquiring the international copyrights to a well-regarded Western movie. The Beijing native has been nominated for best foreign film Oscars three times (for "Ju Dou" in 1990, "Raise the Red Lantern" in 1991 and "Hero" in 2003) and won a Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 for "To Live.
The filmmaker's longtime producer Bill Wong was enlisted to negotiate with the Oscar-winning filmmaker siblings for "Blood Simple," their debut feature and the movie that set the cinematic boilerplate of midnight-black humor, brutality and blazing intelligence that have become the Coens' hallmarks. They eventually agreed to pay a copyright fee and ironed out a profit participation deal that the producer declined to detail but that he described as "very fair." (Deep in post-production on their next film, a remake of the 1969 John Wayne western "True Grit," the Coen brothers were unavailable to be interviewed for this story.)
"'Blood Simple' is not from a studio. It was produced and is owned by the Coen brothers themselves," Wong said. "When a property is attached to a studio, you have to go through a lot to acquire rights. But because the Coens controlled the rights, the process was very efficient."
Although Zhang and Joel and Ethan Coen have never met, as Zhang tells it, the brothers said: "We won't do this for any other director but we're willing to do it for you."
Turns out, "Blood Simple" wasn't necessarily Zhang's first choice for adaptation. "He wanted to do 'No Country for Old Men,'" Wong said. "I said, 'It's too recent. It won Oscars, it involves too many parties and would take forever to clear the rights.' But Yimou is a big admirer of the Coen brothers. We looked into [remaking] 'Fargo,' all of them."
The movie went into production last year in northwestern China, at a time of explosive growth for Chinese cinema, with an average of three new movie theaters opening in the country every day. During the country's tumultuous Cultural Revolution, filming a remake of a Western film would have been impossible on political grounds. But as a result of China's economic boom, there has been a spate of Chinese movies drafting off the popularity of earlier American fare; a recent mainstream film billed itself as "the Chinese 'Bridges of Madison County'" while a period drama set during the siege of Nanjing was marketed as "the Chinese ' Schindler's List.'" Not to mention Chinese-American co-productions, which include reboots of American fare such as "High School Musical: China" and an adaptation of "What Women Want," which just recently wrapped production in Beijing.
"A new cultural space has opened up," UC Santa Barbara's Berry said. "China's film industry is entering a new phase. Now it's both ideologically and financially possible for filmmakers to purchase the rights to remake British or American films."
Zhang, who is finishing post-production on his next feature, "Under the Hawthorn Tree," a love story set during the Cultural Revolution, says the Coens saw an early cut of "A Woman, a Gun" last year and gave it their approval.
"They thought it was fun and interesting the way we took their contemporary film, added Chinese flavor and set it in the past," the director said. "They never imagined their film could be expressed in this manner."
According to Wong, the adaptation may have unintentionally opened the door to a kind of cross-cultural movie exchange program. "They sent a note of congratulations to Zhang," Wong said. "They told him that they are going to make a remake of 'Raise the Red Lantern.' "