So this is how you follow up the Olympic opening ceremonies! Chinese-film figurehead Zhang Yimou's remake of the Coen brothers' Texas noir, Blood Simple, is certainly one of the stranger projects of the year. Transposed from the '80s American West to the ancient Orient, that original suspenseful tale about a jealous husband (Ni Dahong) who hires a crooked lawman (Sun) to kill his cheating wife (Yan Ni) and her lover (Xiao) is now more of a slamming-doors farce. The humor of Zhang's take is regional and not easily translated---this stateside version reportedly excises a wacky end-credits musical number---though Zhang impressively maintains a sense of spinning-plate momentum throughout.
Eventually, the slapstick turns deadly serious, but the film prepares us for the about-face by focusing intently on Sun's straight-man stoicism. This corrupt, charismatic villain is the imperturbable crux around which all the exaggerated characters revolve, and his performance is as wonderful and surprising as that of his Coen-movie counterpart, M. Emmet Walsh. Things falter slightly at the climax: No matter how many scenes Zhang copies whole cloth from Blood Simple, the filmmaker can't quite bring his redo to the same profoundly fatalistic heights. But taken on its own fun-over-philosophy terms, this is an exercise in tone-shifting virtuosity.---Keith Uhlich