Yimou turns the Coen brothers into a stunning void
Published: December 8, 2010
A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Opens Dec. 10 at the Charles Theatre
Chen (Mao Mao) takes a lump of dough and begins hand-flattening it into a disc. The pixieish young woman in the aqua blue gown then twirls a rolling pin around her fingers and starts flattening the dough even more. She dusts it with flour, effortlessly scoops it up with her hands, and begins twirling it atop an end of the rolling pin like a plate spinner. She tosses it to her co-worker Zhao (Ye Cheng), a bit of a simpleton clad in a sunrise orange robe, who keeps the dough spinning, increasing its circumference with each revolution. When it’s about the size of a large pizza he tosses it over to Li (Xiao Shen-Yang), the manager of this remote noodle shop in 19th-century China, who hand-spins the flattening sheet perpendicular to the floor. He passes the dough wheel back to Chen, who passes it back to Zhao, who passes it back to Li, when the sheet looks to be the size of a nice-sized area rug. They’re making noodles in this acrobatic, just more than a minute-long sequence (youtube.com/watch?v=oLJiLp_mMCU), and it’s one of the straight-up Chinese-language movie tropes that get stitched into this remake of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1984 debut Blood Simple, which director Zhang Yimou treats almost as a blueprint for A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop.
Yimou’s celebrated directorial streak from 1987’s Red Sorghum through 1995’s Shanghai Triad delivered a welcome peek into China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers to the comfy confines of American art-house theaters. Even more than those of his peer Chen Kaige, Yimou’s movies introduced Chinese cinematographers (such as Fei Zhao and Gu Changwei) to Hollywood and made the incomparable Gong Li an international star. That this period overlapped with the explosion of Hong Kong cinema’s more popular-audience action flicks and the Taiwanese new wave made Chinese-language cinema more accessible during the mid-1980s to mid-’90s, even though some deserving auteurs—chief among them Stanley Kwan and Ann Hui—remain little known here.
Since Triad, Yimou has repeatedly molted his cinematic skin. After a few surprisingly inconsequential outings (Not One Less, Happy Times) he followed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s lead of lusciously blending art-house pretensions into wuxia storytelling with Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower, and directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and an Oct. 1, 2009 celebration of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s founding.
Noodle, however, is a confounding career curveball. Yimou and his screenwriters Jianquan Shi and Jing Shang export Blood from a seedy Houston bar to an isolated noodle shop owned by Wang (Dahong Ni) in a painted desert. Other than the setting and period detail, the story unfolds almost exactly like its source. Police investigator Zhang (Sun Hunglei, as Mount Rushmore stoic as Tommy Lee Jones) tells Wang that his young wife (Yan Ni) is carrying on an affair with his shop manager Li. Wang hires Zhang to kill the pair while he’s away, but Zhang tries to doublecross Wang to earn more money. Soon, Li is frantically working through the night to cover up a crime he assumes his lover committed while Zhang keeps trying to make off with the fortune Wang keeps in his safe.
The story is effortlessly transposed to this setting, as sex and money are timeless motivators. Yimou includes a fair share of base slapstick humor, a pedestrian quirk familiar to all kung-fu movie fans, which curiously makes the Coens’ black humor and specious characters feel even more cynical.
Most memorable, though, are the movie’s indelible images. Noodle is an orgy of color, from the hot silks worn by the cast to the otherworldly setting. Single establishing shots offer ravishing floods of intoxicating beauty: Mediterranean Sea blue skies hover above a desert landscape that looks hand-colored by gods who have their own collection of siennas, ochres, and umbers not found in any mortal crayon box. And Yimou and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao often frame these vistas in compositions that sear themselves into the optic nerve.
The problem is the why—as in, if there’s an intellectual, aesthetic, or even clever reason for Yimou to update qua interpret Blood Simple, the movie isn’t saying. Sure, Hollywood remakes successful foreign films for an American market all the time, and while that commercial impulse is crass, it’s obvious. But the impetus behind Yimou’s Noodle is completely opaque, as if any 1984 movie would do. Repo Man could certainly be pretty bitching in the Qing Dynasty.
This lack of a point wouldn’t be so troublesome if Yimou’s finest moments weren’t so ripe with purpose. No matter how mainstream art-house his early work may feel now, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju can still deliver a powerful experience. A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop merely offers a smorgasbord of superficial dazzle—a movie created by a consummate craftsman who unleashes his mastery no matter how much he does or doesn’t care about the subject matter.
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