Berlinale has always been known for its diplomacy, for better or for worse. After last year's entry of Chen Kaige's Mei Lanfang (Forever Enthralled), here comes the last opus of the PRC's official filmmaker (and ceremony choreographer), Zhang Yimou. The once powerful director delivers his fantasy "ancient" (imperial) China remake of Coen brothers' Blood Simple. The setting: a country inn in a digitally colored desert; the characters: the young and exuberant wife of the inn's owner (an elderly man with a bitter temper), her lover (the cook), two cooks/waiters, a fat servile guy, and a matter of fact girl. The first visitor to the inn is a foreign merchant (with a pirate look and exotic assistants) who sells her a gun (a never seen object in these remote regions of ancient China), and then along comes a cunning and greedy soldier, the inevitable killer. The married couple + the lover + the killer + the gun: the ingredients of Blood Simple interweaved in a copycat comedy of misunderstandings and murders.
The story unfolds following the pattern (and very often straightforwardly copying the scenes) of the Coens' film. The main question that immediately comes to one's mind is of course "Why?" Directed and played with the heaviest of hands, clumsily referring to the Chinese tradition of operatic comedy and clown characters, filmed like a teleplay and filled with pathetic "witty" dialogs, Zhang's opus has already a reputation in China: even DVD shopkeepers put their clients off buying the film, as experienced by cinephile tourists in China and Chinese filmbuffs.
But more importantly, the presence of Zhang's film (to be honest, he now claims that his next film will be an "art film," his comeback as an "auteur") in the selection shows a lack of understanding of China's cinema policy and inner contradictions, and Chinese filmmakers do have a hard time feeling proud and encouraged about it. Entertainment, expensive sets, state of the art special effects, action, and rephrasing of international successes in Chinese style, as well as harmless comedies, sentimental stories, "decorative" minority films (see Tuya)—this is all what the policy wishes, plus martial arts and gongfu (with all-star casts) from scripts that carry the basic ideas that are politically up to date on the moment (nationalism and brave masses, or renewed attitude towards Taiwan and the Nationalists).
After his first innovative films, Zhang Yimou turned to ideologically formatted epics that proclaim to the world that China can rival with Hollywood in terms of entertainment and great shows, including the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and of the 60th anniversary of the PRC. With this much less committed film, he may have opened the road to remakes that once more challenge the American supremacy. But this is just a guess. Zhang Yimou is of course a "name," and (in spite of everything) a talented filmmaker, but as his generation colleague Chen Kaige, he chose to take a path that unfortunately represents more the goals of the official industry than the more creative trends of Chinese cinema.