A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop: Zhang Yimou’s Remake of the Coens Blood Simple

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Remaking Joel and Ethan Coen’s spectacular debut, “Blood Simple” (1985), turns out to be a winning idea for Chinese director Zhang Yimou. But calling “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” a remake does not really do it justice; this is a bold reimagining of “Blood Simple,” changing the story’s setting from contemporary Texas to a desert in ancient China—and adding plenty of color and other details.
Zhang could have probably gotten away with never mentioning that the film is intended as a remake. However, in returning to the Coen brothers’ first film in such a deliberate fashion, the director seems to be making a point of rebooting his own career. “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop,” which was an official selection at the Berlin Film Festival this year, comes after a string of epics—“Hero” (2002), “House of Flying Daggers” (2004), and “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006)—that took him further and further away from the more personal work he did in the early 1990s, which included “Ju Dou” (1990), “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), and “To Live” (1994).
“Blood Simple” was never an original story in the first place. The film was itself firmly rooted in that long tradition of American crime stories that adhere to Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” What we have in “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” is Zhang successfully and seamlessly transferring that law into an ancient Chinese context. Fortunately, the transfer works really well.
In the film’s opening scene, an unhappy wife (Yan Ni) of a noodle shop owner (Ni Dahong) buys a gun, a new form of weaponry at the time, from a traveling merchant. Her lover (Xiao Shenyang), a cook in the shop, nervously watches on, knowing that this gun will no doubt be trouble.
However, things do not seem so serious at first, as Zhang conveys early on large doses of broad comedy, slapstick even, and loud characters decked out in garish colors.
At first, we seem to still be in the cartoon China of Zhang’s recent films. But as the “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” unfolds, Zhang reveals that one of his goals is to satirize his own epics. A memorable early sequence, shot and staged in the style of those choreographed swordfights he has become famous for, turns the simple act of noodle making into over-the-top acrobatics.
Murder is, of course, in the air. The wife encourages her lover to use the gun to off her husband, thus putting an end to his longstanding abuse of her and freeing them as lovers. Her husband, meanwhile, has a plan of his own: he enlists a local police officer (Sun Honglei) to kill both the wife and lover before they can kill him. The officer, naturally, has plans of his own as well.
Thus begins the double-crossing motif. He returns from the desert, pretending to have killed the wife and lover, who were out on a tryst, and promptly proceeds to shoot the husband with the wife’s gun. From that point, things basically go haywire. Everyone is trying to get into the husband’s well-stocked safe without getting caught, especially the officer, whose every attempt is thwarted at the last moment.
This is a nice role for Honglei, who made his debut ten years ago in Zhang’s “Road Home” (2000). With very few lines, Honglei conveys the officer’s increasing desperation to make off with the loot. His character is something of a force of nature: whatever goes wrong, he reemerges from the desert in his bulky uniform, almost a Darth Vader-esque figure.
Zhang’s desert, reminiscent of the look of Wong Kar-wai’s desert in “Ashes of Time” (1994), essentially becomes one of the film’s main characters. A handful of troubled human beings are enacting their little murderous dramas in a vast and unforgiving, perhaps uninterested, desert. The noodle shop, which never seems to have any customers, is something of a last outpost of civilization. The director fills this brisk 95-minute film with masterful desert imagery, mixed with brilliant strokes of color.
The final sequence, which involves a violent confrontation between the wife, brandishing scissors, and the policeman at his most crazed, ends the film with a visual tour de force. The last couple minutes alone make the whole film worth seeing. (It should be noted that the last act in the Coens’ film was also spectacularly staged and shot).
Zhang has certainly refined his visual panache during his decade of epics, and “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” proves what a strong film he is capable of when he can combine his current visual mastery with a story and theme of some depth. Although this film begins in silliness, it gradually grows darker and darker, finally leaving a bitter aftertaste, which is very welcome in this case. Zhang’s cautionary tale is a reminder of how foolish human beings can be—and are–when greed completely takes over.
Hopefully, Zhang can continue in this direction and fulfill all the potential of his early films with a great late period. While he has certainly become one of the world’s most gifted directors of extravagant spectacles, his more formidable gift is his ability to convey, amid the spectacle, human tragedy at the intimate level.
Zhang may be no Akira Kurosawa, but “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” visually and thematically shows the strong influence of the Japanese master. Seeing Zhang foreground the Shakespearean elements of the “Blood Simple” storyline—much as Kurosawa might have done with the same material—makes us wonder what great things could happen if Zhang took on Shakespeare directly, as Kurosawa did in “Throne of Blood” (1957) and his late-period masterpiece “Ran” (1985).
Sun Honglei – the police officer
Yan Ni – the wife
Ni Dahong – the husband
Xiao Shenyang – the cook
A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Produced by Zhang Weiping, Bill Kong, Gu Hao.
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Screenplay by Xu Zhengchao, Shi Jianquan.
Director of Photography, Zhao Xiaoding.
Editor, Meng Peicong.
Production Design, Han Zhong.
Costume Designer, Huang Qiuping.
Sound, Steve Burgess, He Wei.
Music, Zhao Lin.
Running time: 95 Minutes.

By Jeff Farr

Sony Classics, Sep 1