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Hey all, your ever-luvin’ LMD has just completed her Asian movie trinity.  The third of the three gods of Chinese filmmaking after Wong Kar-wai and John Woo, we’ve now had the extreme pleasure of an exclusive chat with the director of Red Sorghum {1987}, Raise the Red Lantern {1991}, Hero {2002}, House of Flying Daggers {2004} and Curse of the Golden Flower {2006}, Zhang Yimou

From China, Zhang spoke with us about his newest film, A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, and discussed his Coen brothers luv, Chinese censorship, the Olympics, his sure-to-be-controversial upcoming project about the Rape of Nanjing.  He also kindly indulged us while we geeked out about Flying Snow.

Dig it!


A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop

Zhang Yimou


The Lady Miz Diva:  What was it about the Coen brothers’ film Blood Simple that made you want to remake it?

Zhang Yimou:  I first saw the film 20 years ago at the Cannes Film Festival.  At the time, the film played in English with no subtitles and I don’t speak English, so there was a lot that I couldn’t really get into in terms of the details of the dialog and some of the finer points of the film, but still I was quite taken by the film and really moved by this work.  At the core of that was this misunderstanding that occurs in the middle of the film that the lover thinks the wife is the one that killed the husband and through that misunderstanding all kinds of other details unfold. That was something that really grabbed me and so that element of the misunderstanding was something that I wanted to grab onto.  And there were all kinds of visual details in the film; one that comes to mind immediately is when the husband is being buried alive and he takes out the gun and then it doesn’t fire.  I remember that so clearly and it had such an impact on me.  The Coen brothers, all of their films are quite stylistically unique and powerful and they’ve always really left a good impression on me.  Last year, when I was looking for some new material to make my next film, I realised I just didn’t have any great screenplays on hand and I turned to the possibility of remaking Blood Simple.


LMD:  After the incredibly ambitious and successful staging of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, did you feel this movie, a remake of the Coen brothers’ feature debut, was a refresher to recharge your artistic batteries or a way to get back to basics as a filmmaker?

ZY:  {Laughs} Yeah, I would agree with that; that after such a massive-scale production of the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, I really wanted to do something on a much smaller scale.  Something to kind of wake myself up and refresh myself, have a new perspective on things.  Something that was humourous, that was light and just had a whole different outlook than what I had been doing for the last two years with planning the Olympic ceremonies.


LMD:  I wondered why you decided to inject so much humour into your film?  You mentioned focusing on the misunderstanding in Blood Simple and often in films misunderstandings can be can played for comedy.  Did that affect your decision to make the characters exaggerated like those in a Chinese Opera and often comical?

ZY:  I think you’re right in that comedy often is born of a misunderstanding.  And often when you have misunderstandings, there is a space that opens up for more humour, comedy and other elements like that to really come to the forefront.  So I really tried to play with this side; taking the misunderstanding that was in the original film and blowing that up to exaggerating it, to making it so it wasn’t just one misunderstanding that the boyfriend thought the wife killed the husband -- but it really wasn’t -- but to have almost every character involved in this network of misunderstanding.  These misunderstandings are really a psychological phenomenon, it really is, ‘I thought he was doing that,’ or, ‘She thought he was doing this,’ or, ‘She thought he was thinking this,’ or, ‘She was thinking that he was taking that,’ and so everybody is caught up in this cycle of guessing what everybody’s psychological state may or may not be and it leads to this whole network of misunderstandings that can also bring about a very comical or farcical environment.


LMD:  Were there any other Western films besides Blood Simple that you considered remaking?

ZY:  In principle, I always try to find original source material first; whether it’s a screenplay that I write or develop, or a Chinese novel that I adapt, that’s always been my first source of inspiration and what always I go to first.  In this particular case, I had several screenplays in development, but none of them were really mature enough.  They weren’t at the point where I felt they were ready to be shot and it was only under that type of situation that I turned to the option of perhaps adapting a Western film, so that’s where this originally came from.  Of course, there are many other wonderful Western films out there that maybe one day I might consider, but it’s really only after I’ve exhausted other possibilities of original screenplays.  What I thought was interesting about this was taking a film that was really a classic work of American cinema and adapting it into this very uniquely Eastern or Chinese cultural context and a pre-modern context at that.  And I thought that through this process of radical re-adaptation, something really new, unique and novel could come out of that.  And this in itself is a kind of East-West cultural collaboration of sorts, so I thought it was a very novel and fascinating project for me to have been involved with.


LMD:  As the most famous filmmaker from Mainland China, and especially after the success of the Beijing Olympics, you and your films are considered a symbol of the country.  However, from the start of your career, your movies have often been controversial in China for their subject matter.  Are you at a point now where you are free of censorship?

ZY:  Since China entered the reform era, they’ve been more and more open.  China has been more liberal; there’s a larger space for artists to really express themselves and things are much better than they were in the past.  But at the same time, there still is a very strict film censorship system that exists in China and that hasn’t changed that much.  It is getting more liberal, but it’s still in place and just because I have this kind of notoriety or a name behind me after making all these films and making the Olympics, that doesn’t give me a discount or a get-out-of-jail-free card on the way I deal with the censorship system. {Laughs} After all, it is a state system and that’s the kind of system that doesn’t change its rules for individuals.  And in one sense, I actually have to be more careful and maybe even I’m subject to harsher scrutiny than other directors because of my influence and because they know that unlike maybe a young director -- who’s making a smaller film that might have a much smaller audience -- they’ll let certain things by, but my films, since they’re seen by such a large audience, sometimes they’re even more strict.  And they’ll even say to me, sometimes an official will call me over and say, “Hey Yimou, you know you’re very influential and I think because so many people are gonna see this film, this shot, we’d better cut it out.  If it was in someone else’s film it might get passed, but your films, it’s not going to work.  You’ve gotta take this out.”  So I think on one level, I might be subject to slightly stricter censorship standards than some other younger directors making films with less impact.  But at the same time though, I think the general trend is for more and more openness and I think in the future as the system develops, we hopefully will have a much better censorship system that will be more and more open and more and more embracing of different styles and different contents.


LMD:  Hero’s Flying Snow is one of my favourite movie heroines.  One of the things I adore most about your films is your portrayal of women.  You have created some of the greatest female characters on the screen.  Is that important to you to present as a filmmaker?  Where do you get your insight to the perspective of women?

ZY:  Throughout my films, the perspective of women and taking women as a central focus to many of my stories has been extremely important and I really could say that they are the primary center of a lot of my creative work.  I think that really comes from the fact that in China, it’s a male-centered society; it’s a patriarchal society, especially in earlier areas of history.  And so women were often suppressed, they were often objectified or looked at in this inferior status.  In many cases, they were the lowest class; they were really at the bottom of society.  And so when you’re telling a historical story, sometimes looking at the fate of women in that kind of environment and all of the difficulties that they must face, it creates a certain dramatic tension and a certain element of storytelling that I find quite enthralling and quite exciting to deal with because it reveals so many nuances of what’s going on between these different classes.  And it’s different because you’re taking this perspective that is against the patriarchal mainstream and trying to do something different with it.  Even in my next film that I’m going to begin production on very soon, that’s going to be a historical film as well, set during the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, and for that film I’m going to really try to focus on the fate and the perspective of a young girl and look at that history through her eyes.  And I think that’s also going to be a way to reveal some really new material about that era of history and tell that story from a very fresh and exciting perspective.


LMD:  Could you please tell us the name of that upcoming project?

ZY:  The Chinese title is Jinling Shisan Chai.  That means the Thirteen Girls of Jinling, and there’s no international title of the film yet, but I’m sure the producers will find some new title that will work better in a foreign language.


LMD:  Would you please give a message to my readers?

ZY:  I hope that they will enjoy this film.  And although China is a distant culture and distant country far, far away, I hope that through film, your readers and audiences can start to learn more and appreciate more about Chinese culture.  I know in China that there’s been a huge impact from American films, particularly Hollywood films.  Everybody watches massive amounts of Hollywood films, on the one hand as entertainment, but on the other hand as a means through which they can understand America and open up a door to cultural understanding and I hope that my films will also serve as a kind of bridge through which more Americans can also appreciate films, but also appreciate various elements of Chinese culture. 


~ The Lady Miz Diva

August 18th, 2010


Special xie-xies to Mr. Michael Berry of UCLA’s Center for Chinese Studies for his wonderful translation.

Click here for our review of director Zhang's 2006 classic, Curse of the Golden Flower


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Film stills courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics







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