China's most famous film director, Zhang Yimou, is well-known internationally in the art-house world. His fame spread even wider when he orchestrated the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. Now, he's taking on Hollywood in the Chinese market. He has remade and transformed a Coen brothers movie.

NPR's Louisa Lim spoke with him in Shanghai.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blood Simple")

LOUISA LIM: "Blood Simple" by the Coen brothers was a nerve-jangling noir thriller set in a Texas bar. The story revolves around the chaos that ensues when a good-for-nothing bar owner hires a detective to kill his wife and her lover.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blood Simple")

Mr. M. EMMET WALSH (Actor): (As Loren Visser) You want me to kill them?

Mr. DAN HEDAYA (Actor): (As Julian Marty) I'll give you $10,000.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Simple Noodle Story")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I've got a big job for you, killing the two of them, and I'll give you 10 strings of coins. That's Zhang Yimou's version, named "A Simple Noodle Story."

The storyline remains similar. Some shots are identical. But Zhang's moved the action to a remote noodle shop in ancient China, a decision he admits taken for the sake of ease.

Mr. ZHANG YIMOU (Director, "A Simple Noodle Story"): (Through translator) It's more convenient setting it in ancient China. The level of freedom is greater. It's not that easy to shoot contemporary material. Lots of things are forbidden.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Simple Noodle Story")

LIM: A bigger change still is Zhang's decision to make the film as a slapstick comedy with song and dance numbers revolving around noodle-making. Some of China's top comedians star. One is a nervous girly guy; another is a goofy character with buck teeth who falls down almost every time he appears.

It's a far cry from Zhang's early trailblazing films, seen as allegories against China's communist bureaucracy. Zhang is unapologetic.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator) It's very absurd, very exaggerated. It's because I shot such serious films before, I wanted to experiment with a different style. In fact, there were commercial factors. We wanted to make a New Year's film.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Commercial factors were behind his decision to incorporate elements of Chinese folk culture. This is an example of errenzhuan, a form of comic dialogue from northeastern China. Zhang says the rise of the mainland market is making Chinese directors change their focus. Ten years ago, his films relied on the international market. Critics sneered that his main audience were international film festival judges.

Now, however, Zhang says a Chinese film can make at home 10 times what it makes overseas. He argues that by being commercial, he's doing battle with Hollywood for the soul of Chinese cinema.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator) Young people are the key. If they lose interest in domestic movies, we'll be in big trouble. Then China's film market will be occupied by foreigners. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea are examples of this. The mainland is our last battleground. So in this case, it's not shameful to shoot commercial or funny movies.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: This is Zhang's first return to film after staging the Olympic opening ceremony, the most viewed television event ever, according to one study. He subsequently directed the closing ceremony and the military parade marking China's 60th anniversary.

These gigantic spectacles earned Zhang accolades, but also raised doubts overseas about whether he'd become the artist in residence to China's authoritarian government.

His status has changed at home, too, according to Yang Junlei, associate professor at Fudan University.

Professor YANG JUNLEI (Fudan University): (Through translator) Before the Olympics, Zhang was a trailblazer for an elite minority of culture lovers. But afterwards, because of the success of the opening ceremony, he's become a national cultural hero who is widely approved of by the Chinese people.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Despite his state-sponsored assignments, Zhang denies losing his independence. He argues that censorship limits all Chinese directors equally, and he denies being burdened by the expectations of his new status.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator) I can't think about the pressure. If you thought about it, you wouldn't able to do anything. You have to have your feet on the ground.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Simple Noodle Story")

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: In its first four days, "A Simple Noodle Story" took almost $15 million at the box office. Despite its commercial success, it's been panned. Half those answering one online survey thought it was terrible or worse than expected.

But the director professes not to care. He's already moved on to his next project, a love story set in the Cultural Revolution. For the film after that, his producer says he's talking to Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks for a role set in the Japanese occupation of China.

Eyes ever on the market, Zhang Yimou appears to be setting his sights on not just saving Chinese cinema, but also conquering Hollywood.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of music)


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