For much of the past quarter century, the Chinese director Zhang Yimou made films that showcased the country’s painful struggle against poverty and political misrule – films that won him global fame but which most Chinese never saw.
But when his hotly-anticipated movie A Simple Noodle Story, hit theatres last weekend, millions of Chinese moviegoers turned up to see it.
The movie’s plot, based loosely on the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, tells the tale of a Chinese noodle shop owner whose plan to kill his cheating wife and her lover goes wrong.
The remake is being closely watched because it is Zhang’s first film since directing the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. His last feature film effort Curse of the Golden Flower, which was released in 2006, was also a hit at the box office.
Zhang told the popular internet portal Sina.com that his new movie – a comedy that morphs into a thriller – was a challenge.
“The audience is watching the movie happily, laughing out, then it slowly changes. But the transition has to be funny and that’s very hard to do. I think I did a decent job,” says Zhang. “This is the first time I tried to bridge the two styles.”
Unlike most of his previous films, there are few A-list red carpeters in the cast. The only recognisable name to WiC readers might be Xiao Shenyang, a popular comedian who gained unexpected fame from an appearance at this year’s Spring Festival Gala (see WiC3).
Perhaps the film marks Zhang’s attempt to reestablish himself as an independent filmmaker, says the Financial Times.
Critics have accused him of cosying up to a political leadership with a record of restricting artistic freedom. Some even dub him the government’s “artist-in-residence”.
Indeed, there has been a turnaround from his early days. His early films in the 1980s, like Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern were banned in the mainland.
Today, he is on much better terms with the apparatchiks, as the creative director of the Olympics opening ceremony and the man behind the evening show at October’s 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
“I was engaged to do the Olympics and because the state leaders were very happy, they used me again for the national day celebrations. These were just assignments,” Zhang says in his defence.
Zhang has made much of his reputation in directing the two national events. But now he wants to work on smaller scale projects.
“You can’t mention the ‘huge-crowd strategy’, it bothers him [Zhang]. He’s done with it,” Zhang Weiping, Zhang’s long-time producer, told the Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly – a reference to Zhang’s earlier epics like Hero that featured huge battle scenes.
However, Noodle Shop elicited a mixed reaction from the critics. The Beijing Times says the film is “not thrilling and not funny,” and the China News Service went so far as to call it, “Zhang Yimou’s worst movie yet”.
Despite the negative reviews, Noodle Story held up reasonably well at the box office.
It grossed Rmb101 million ($15 million) in the first weekend of its release.
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