Doomed Love: The Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple" and Zhang Yimou's Remake

In the Coen brothers' debut and a Chinese remake two decades later, two films show the convoluted aftermath of relationships gone south.
Susannah Gruder

The Coen brothers' Blood Simple (1984) is showing December 22 – January 20 and Zhang Yimou's A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (2009) is showing December 23 – January 21, 2019 in the United Kingdom as part of the series Original Vs. Remake: Coen Brothers/Zhang Yimou.

It’s the same old song: the wife, her lover, the husband and the hired killer. It’s true that most stories of lust, adultery and murder have the same, sad endings. But nothing is that simple: all crimes have their own pitfalls and false starts along the way—just to keep things interesting. In the cycle of abuse, too, the abused can’t help but notice patterns. Escaping a violent spouse is a feat on its own, but once you’ve gotten rid of them, little signs that they’re still with you start popping up everywhere. In Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ debut feature from 1984, a classic noir narrative is updated and remixed, with elements ripped from the pages of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain to introduce their soon-to-be signature neo-noir style. And while it seemed like a bold choice when Chinese director Zhang Yimou remade the film with 2009’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, his selection from the Coens’ catalogue makes perfect sense. It turns out that the simpler the story is, the more likely it is to repeat itself.

Both retellings blur the lines between crime drama and ghost story, with a murder plot gone wrong and a villain who refuses to make easy work of killing him. Blood Simple opens with a shot we’ve grown accustomed to: the camera speeds down a Texas highway before settling in to the backseat of a car carrying the two lovers: Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand, in her knockout screen debut) are tossing hints at one another about their forbidden desires. Ray, who works at Abby’s husband’s popular Austin bar, is ever-laconic and just a tad simple. He discloses his feelings for her plainly, with those three little words: “I like you.” Abby arguably plants the seed in Ray’s mind that she wants to be rid of her miserable husband Marty (Dan Hedaya): “He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for our first anniversary,” she says. “Figure I better leave before I use it on him.” They pull over when she thinks a car might be trailing them. She’s right. The next day Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), the slimy P.I. hired by her husband, hand-delivers photos of the two in bed to the dim back office of Marty’s bar, setting off a series of criminal events spurred by jealousy, rage, and crippled masculinity.

Zhang, In his version, substitutes the vast highways and suburban streets of east Texas for the sprawling desert mountains of China’s Gansu province in a past era. The director is now known more for his epic martial arts films, including Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), than his early arthouse triumphs like Red Sorghum (1988) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), and the technicolor costumes and dramatic setting in this remake raise the stakes of the story to operatic proportions. The plot of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (A Simple Noodle Story in Mandarin) almost exactly mimics the Coens’ screenplay, but each character’s traits are wildly exaggerated, adding a cartoonish layer to this classic storyline. Wang (Ni Dahong), the husband and owner of the noodle shop, is buffoonishly evil, and takes his frustrations out on his wife (Ni Yani) with cruel debasement. His wife, who’s never addressed by name, puts her vanity on full display, primping herself in public and peacocking around the shop in spite of her controlling spouse. Her lover Li (Xiao Shenyang) is a bumbling ball of nerves clad in a bubblegum pink getup that only adds to the emasculation he suffers at the hands of his lover. Here, she’s openly dominant over Li, though only in direct proportion to how demeaning her husband is to her. She flatters her lover, however, in the same way Abby flatters Ray, hinting that if her husband was out of her life, a more permanent spot would open up for him. The fourth member of the ill-fated ensemble, Zhang the hired assassin (Sun Honglei), is a more artful killer than Visser—a stone-faced criminal who will stop at nothing to achieve his amoral ends. If Visser’s persistent amusement at Marty’s misfortune is off-putting (“Gimme a call when you wanna cut off my head,” he tells him upon delivering the news of his wife’s affair. “I can always crawl around without it.”), Zhang’s stoicism is perhaps even more disturbing.

Blood Simple mixes the Coens’ sardonic humor with a sense of foreboding from the beginning, with his four players darting in and out of shadows or shielding their eyes from blaring headlights as they cruise down a two-lane highway. The directors’ fascination with genre introduces us to a rural Texas breed of American Gothic—characters are illuminated by the neon of a jukebox or a lite beer sign as they partake in their underhanded dealings. Noodle Shop tries on several different moods as well, before settling into one of pure darkness. Zhang’s film plays with the tropes of his own mythic genre: during the lighter moments of the film’s first half, employees artfully prepare noodles with the skill of martial arts masters. Later, he films an arrow shoot into a room, slicing through a rope that holds a group of ornately decorated noodle bowls suspended—they crash to the floor and shatter in slow-motion signaling the fate that awaits the character on the other side.

A Woman a Gun and a Noodle Shop

In both films it is women who get their guns, part as a way of bucking gender norms, but also as a simple defense against their abusive husbands. In Noodle Shop, Wang’s wife ogles her new piece, which she purchases directly off a Persian dealer in the opening scene. Zhao (Cheng Ye), a dopey fellow employee, describes the gun to Wang as he gesticulates to show its size: “It’s this long, and this thick.” When Wang ambushes the two lovers in their secret spot in the hills, it’s his wife who scares him off with her impressive weapon. In Blood Simple, the scene plays out with Abby kneeing Marty in the groin when she can’t reach her gun in time. He doubles over, vomits, and skulks away, ready to avenge this blatant disregard for his manhood. Both scenes take place in broad daylight, showing that these spurned husbands feel entitled to their “property,” and hardly consider their violent attempts to reclaim their wives to be worth carrying out in private.

It’s here where the foursome splits off into two factions, with both headed toward decidedly unhappy unions. While the lovers try to find a way to stave off the husband, the jilted spouse forms a partnership with his hired assassin, paid to kill both his wife and her new companion. Marty insists on discretion between him and Visser at all costs: “For richer, for poorer.” Visser replies, “Don’t say that, your marriages don’t work out too hot.” Likewise, in both films, when Ray/Li try to clean up a mess that they mistakenly attribute to Abby/Wang’s wife, they spiral into mania on par with her husband’s obsession. Even though Ray resents Marty on multiple levels—beyond his horrible treatment of Abby, he’s clearly an abusive boss—there’s a sense that he almost wants to become him. For Abby, it appears escaping her husband isn’t as simple as she thought.

In a scene that’s inventively realized in both versions, the husband returns to the wife in a nightmare. “I love you,” Marty says to Abby. “I love you, too,” she says. “No, you’re just saying that because you’re scared,” he replies before choking up a waterfall of blood, articulating the catch-22 of an abuser—any love they elicit will be on the basis of fear. In Noodle Shop, Wang appears before his wife holding the divorce papers she drew up, before throwing them in her face as they shatter and rain down in millions of little pieces. Blood Simple goes further, repeating the same dialogue between Ray and Abby. He, too, suspects her “I love you, too,” is spoken out of fear, as he succumbs to his paranoia and loses her trust in the process.

With much of the later action shot by moonlight, both films edge into the realm of horror. There’s a sense of terror when Abby washes her face in the bathroom mirror, unsure of who might be behind her when she looks up. And Wang’s wife’s screams seem to escalate throughout the film, capitulating in blood-curdling shrieks as she fights for her life. You can read the wife’s visions of her husband in multiple ways—guilt for cheating on him, genuine sympathy—but the truth is that trauma she’s endured at his hands will keep him coming back again and again. It’s a simple story, but in both the Coens’ and Zhang’s retellings, there’s a million ways things go wrong. The story of a broken marriage, too, has its intricacies—seemingly little things tend to build up and explode. Zhang tells a story that’s true to the Coens’, but also to the experience of a relationship gone south. The traumas of domestic abuse don’t often just disappear with the next relationship—things like that don’t die without a fight.

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