They Came From Abroad: The Odd Foreign Remake

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop directed by Zhang YimouAmerican filmmakers don’t have a monopoly on remaking movies. Other country’s directors have no problem, officially or unofficially, taking Yankee movie making ideas and crafting them to their own liking.

Consider the recent A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, the latest film from Mainland China’s Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern). Believe it or not, it is a reworking of the Coen Brothers’ first film, the stylish 1984 noir Blood Simple. The main plot is pretty much intact in this Mandarin language reboot. The young wife of a mean-spirited owner of an eating establishment takes on one of his younger workers in an affair. When hubby gets wind of his spouse’s adultery, he enlists a cop to kill both the wife and her lover. Of course, a gun owned by the wife, misunderstandings and complications play a part in the end result of this tortured triangle.

It’s no surprise that A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is gorgeously filmed and filled with eye-catching colors. The director’s films usually are sumptuous, even ravishing to look at. But while the basic story is the same as the Coens’, there are differences that set the remake apart. The original film was set in the contemporary Texas desert; Yimou’s tale takes place in ancient China. The bar of the original is now, obviously, a noodle factory, and there are more people around this time, including a buck-toothed, cross-eyed employee. The Coens’ film is mostly serious in tone—the laughs were elicited by odd coincidences and Barry Sonnenfeld’s hyperactive camerawork. Yimou’s opus offers slapstick and even martial arts to boot.

A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop is a reverent—but not too-reverent—salute to Ethan and Joel Coen’s thrilling first effort. The Beat My Heart Skipped, a 2005 release from France’s Jacques Audiard, also shows reverence to its inspiration: James Toback’s 1978 feature debut Fingers. In some quarters, Fingers was looked at as a cruddy little piece of exploitation filmmaking (“Mr. Toback favors a stiff, staccato, nervous style of direction that’s heavy on the hocus-pocus and low on verisimilitude or insight,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times).  But others, like The New Yorker’s legendary Pauline Kael, saw the low-budget film—or at least its director—differently, extolling Toback’s gritty brilliance on a low budget. Over the years, the film has gained a strong cult following.

Audiard’s official remake takes Toback’s storyline from the seedy confines of late-1970s Manhattan to contemporary Paris. As was Harvey Keitel’s Jimmy in the Toback original, Romain Duris’ Tom is a man torn between high art and low commerce. He’s following in the footsteps of his mobster father, involved in seedy business dealings; he’s also a classically trained musician, and wrestles with his desire to tinkle the ivories as a concert pianist.

There’s blunt, forceful filmmaking in both versions of the story, but the tweaks are obvious. One of the humorous asides of the original was Keitel’s obsession with oldies music, as he tools around town with a huge boom box playing “Summertime, Summertime” by The Jamies, “the best f***kin’ song of 1958!” In the new version, Tom’s character is obsessed with techno, which he listens to on headphones. Another sign of the times has Tom involved in speculative real estate like his father; Fingers had Jimmy collecting the debts of degenerative gamblers. While the original had its own, er,  exotic touches, such as a scene in which one of Jimmy’s associates (Toback pal Jim Brown) has a rough-sex interracial ménage a-trois (bold for its time), the flourishes in Audiard’s film include a Tunisian restaurant where the proprietor owes Tom money and a sensitive Vietnamese piano teacher. As for the not-for-the squeamish sequences, there’s no shortage in either, whether they be the prostate exam (urgh) of Fingers, or those moments in The Beat My Heart Skipped in which Duris and cronies use rats to scare squatters and tenants off their properties. A big difference between the two was the initial reception they received: Fingers was released on a very limited basis to mixed reviews, while The Beat My Heart Skipped got mostly glowing accolades and won 11 Cesar Awards (The French equivalent of the Oscars).

Nikita Mikhalkov directed 12 Angry MenIn 2007’s 12, Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov (Close To Eden, Burnt by the Sun) tackles Sidney Lumet’s expertly handled 1957 version of Reginald Rose’s jury-room teleplay 12 Angry Men. As in the original, the prejudices of the 12 jurors simmer under the surface as they deliberate about the fate of a boy accused of murder. In the New York City-set original, it was a Hispanic teen that allegedly stabbed his father; in Mikhalov’s version, the defendant is a Chechen kid tried for murdering his adoptive parent, a Russian military officer. The argument about the Chechen lad’s guilt or innocence volleys back and forth over 2 ½ hours in a dilapidated gym across from the courthouse. Lumet’s film may have clocked in at 97 minutes, but Mikhalov’s is no less riveting. While Lumet’s film boasted an impressive cast, headed by Henry Fonda with such great actors as Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb and Jack Klugman, the new version’s length allows for more insight into the jurors’ backgrounds and a series of monologues that are often riveting.

When it comes to remaking American films, mostly unofficially, Bollywood has no peers. The film industry in India often cranks out over 1000 movies a year, 500 more than a typical Hollywood year. More than a few ape their American counterparts; in India, however, extra length and elaborate musical numbers are the norm.

So, if you want a remake of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, there’s 2002’s Kaante. If you’re seeking a redux of I am Sam, the one about Sean Penn’s emotionally handicapped man trying to gain custody of his daughter, there’s Main Aisa Hi Hoon (2005). Want Three Men and a Baby, twenty years later and set in Australia with an all-Bollywood cast? Then don’t forget Hayy Babyy. John Carpenter’s Christine became Tarzann the Wonder Car 21 years later. Then there’s a loose remake of the first Harry Potter film called Aabra Ka Daabra. That one annoyed Warner Brothers to the point that they threatened to sue a Bollywood enterprise when they put a remake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button into pre-production.

India is not the only country that has put the boilerplate to American films. The increasingly busy Nigerian film industry has given us My Beloved, a no-frills version of James Cameron’s expensive Titanic, Celine Dion-inspired musical theme included.

Turkey, meanwhile, has had its way with both Star Wars (John Williams music intact!) and E.T. Actually, the 1982 Turkish version of the first Star Wars film was called Dunyayi Kurtaran Adaml, and plays like a mashup of Indiana Jones and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. They’ve included the actual special effects from the original—in the wrong aspect ratio! As for the E.T. salute from Turkey, 1983’s Badi, the creature with gastro problems that befriends a group of kids has been likened to a melting glob of candy.

In other words, Turkish taffy.