Zhang Yimou released his first film, Red Sorghum, in 1987, two years after Ethan and Joel Coen made their cinematic debut with Blood Simple. The exquisite artistry of Zhang’s early work, which also includes Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, established him as the Ingmar Bergman of China. As impresario of the Beijing Olympic ceremonies in 2008, Zhang became his country’s P. T. Barnum. Turning to violent, busy burlesque with A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, he is now China’s Robert Rodriguez.
Zhang’s new film is in fact based on the Coens’ Blood Simple, and if there is anything more preposterous than trying to transpose a contemporary Texas noir farce to a desert town in northwest China in the 19th century, it is the lurid, senseless story itself. Wang (Dahong Ni) has become rich off the proceeds of a noodle shop at the edge of a vast stretch of lonesome badlands, despite the fact that its only clients seem to be rare, occasional travelers. He is abusive toward his beautiful young wife, who in 10 years of marriage has failed to produce the required male heir. For the past 71 days, the titular woman (Ni Yan) has been in love with Li (Xiao Shen-Yang), Wang’s wimpy assistant. Suspecting infidelity, Wang commissions a duplicitous, poker-faced detective named Zhang (Honglei Sun) to kill both his wife and Li. The wife has her own ideas of homicide and purchases a gun from a passing Persian merchant. Meanwhile, Wang’s oafish chef plots to loot his boss’s bulging safe.
A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop is a marvel of technical virtuosity. The lighting is meticulously modulated, and the digitally enhanced images of cloud flows, sunrise, and moonrise above an achingly bleak landscape are spectacular. In an early, extravagantly goofy scene, the eyes feast on the making of noodles choreographed as if cut from Zhang’s own 2004 martial arts epic House of Flying Daggers. Although it begins with panache, the whole soulless enterprise soon collapses into mere pastiche. Film-school students could learn much about cinematography and editing from this lo mein Western. Despite its initial wild élan, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop begins to sputter long before its predictably bloody conclusion. It is inevitable that a woman with a gun in a noodle shop will eventually pull the trigger. Instead of creating suspense, the film provokes impatience. Zhang, a cinematic master, has misfired. He asks us not only to snicker at the antics of hapless, lifeless characters about whom it is hard to give a hoot, but to also chuckle at our own merriment, and that is one guffaw too far. •
A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop
(San qiang pai an jing qi)
Dir. Zhang Yimou; writ. Jianquan Shi & Jing Shang, based on Blood Simple by Ethan & Joel Coen; feat. Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan (R)