[3 February 2011]
When you think of Chinese director Zhang Yimou the first thing that springs to mind are probably sweeping historical epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. You wouldn’t necessarily think that he’d be the one to helm a slapstick reinterpretation of the Coen Brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, but that’s exactly what he did with A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop. Transporting the setting from the wide-open wastes of Texas to near turn of the century high Chinese desert, Zhang gives the Coen’s a farcical comic makeover.
The titular noodle shop, which exists as an isolated outpost, is its own little social world. All of the employees are terrified of the owner, Wang (Ni Dahong), who rules the restaurant like a tyrant, but that doesn’t stop his strong willed, and oft abused wife (Yan Ni), from carrying on an affair with Li (Xiao Shenyang), a congenital coward, who minces about afraid of his own shadow. A chubby, buck-toothed caricature and his girlfriend round out the crew, who craft their noodles in an intricate ballet that has more in common with a circus performance than any kitchen you’ll ever see.
When Wang’s wife buys a gun, a unique and ominous item at the time, from a travelling Persian arms dealer, she kicks off a series of events that quickly snowball, with tragic results. Everyone is hiding something, trying to keep the others in the dark, and all the while misunderstanding the actions of everyone else. These misinterpretations fuel the plot of A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, a story full of crosses, double crosses, plots, schemes, secrets, and lies, not to mention murder, infidelity, larceny, and more.
The twisted story and a rough outline are the main elements that Zhang kept from Blood Simple. What he did was adapt the style into one that purportedly resembles Chinese opera. The gritty barroom and western wear have been replaced with bright, garish costumes, color coded by character, and buffoonish pratfalls are the order of the day. The deliberate, noir influenced pace of the source material has also been cranked up to 11, as characters practically fly through the film at a break-neck tempo, skimming over minor bumps and holes. Some of the comedy mirrors the blackly comic moments that the Coen’s do so well, and there is certainly enough violence and intrigue to satisfy, but most of the humor is big and broad, calling instantly to mind classic Hollywood slapstick, like The Three Stooges or Jerry Lewis.
The later portion of the film, especially after The Captain (Zhao Benshan) steps up to take a larger role in the action, veers more towards darker territory, which can feel a bit jarring to some when contrasted with the quick, colorful theatricality and quick back and forth banter that dominates most of the early going. One noteworthy change is that instead of a traditional shootout, Zhang stages a bow and arrow duel that is a fun twist on a standard formula.
A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop is an interesting translation of a film of a particular style into a different time, culture, and genre. It’s largely successful as a wide-open, madcap comedy, though less so as an adaptation of Blood Simple. If you can take a step back, and appreciate the film for what it is, you’ll most likely enjoy it, but if you’re viewing experience is indelibly colored by thoughts of the original, that might be difficult to get past.
While the actual movie clocks in at the customary 90-minutes, the bonus features total nearly 120-minutes. The two hours of behind the scenes extras are broken into manageable, bite-sized morsels for your consumption, and cover nearly every aspect of the production. Some are serious looks at things like costume design, the choice of actors, location scouting, and fight choreography, while others are more fun, like silly clips of two actors marching around on set, singing and drumming and pretending that they’re in a parade. It is an impressive collection, and there is a little something here for a wide array of fans, from those who want a deeper look into the process behind the film, to those who simply want to be entertained.