Judge William Lee likes noodles. Simple.
Our review of A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop (Blu-Ray), published February 16th, 2011, is also available.
Based on the motion picture Blood Simple.
Zhang Yimou has come a long way since the days when his early films were banned by the Communist government censors as often as they were lauded at international festivals. The most famous of the "Fifth Generation" filmmakers—the first wave of movie makers to emerge from the reopened Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution—Zhang's films are inevitably interpreted as political allegories. His earlier films are commonly read as critiques of the Chinese government while his recent output is viewed as propaganda endorsing the state. His trio of martial arts spectacles, culminating in Curse of the Golden Flower, were made with government support and they are among his most successful movies. In 2008, Zhang directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing, staging an awesome live show using tens of thousands of performers. In stark contrast to the huge canvas he usually paints on, Zhang's latest effort is a small crime story with just a handful of characters.
Facts of the Case
Wang (Ni Dahong, To Live), the despicable owner of a noodle shop, learns his wife (Yan Ni) is cheating on him. He hires an unscrupulous policeman, Zhang (Sun Honglei, Mongol), to kill his wife and her lover Li (Xiao Shenyang). However, the long-suffering wife has just purchased a gun and she has plans of her own.
Whatever were the reasons that compelled a director at the height of his influence to remake Blood Simple, the Coen brothers' debut crime thriller, viewers should be thankful that Zhang Yimou's version is not merely a shot-by-shot restaging. The key elements such as the characters and the general narrative arc of the original are all present but A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop has enough unique touches to stand apart from its inspiration. That said, I think the majority of viewers will find the movie most interesting for how it sticks to or diverges from its source material.
Perhaps the most striking difference compared to Blood Simple is the style of broad humor Zhang employs. This is at its most in your face in the opening scene when a Persian merchant shows off his wares in the noodle shop. Wildly swinging his sword in the air and then displaying his pistols and then a cannon, the camera work and editing complement his antics with quick cuts between warped angles. It feels like we're watching a frenetic Hong Kong comedy, especially with the appearance of a supporting character named Zhao (Cheng Ye) who is fat, dim-witted and sporting cartoonishly oversized buckteeth. These comedic moments are at the extreme opposite of the quiet, tense moments that occur later and for that reason Western viewers may think there's something hugely incongruous in Zhang's vision. Chinese movies are not known for their subtlety, however, so perhaps this is how the director thought best to lighten the mood for the domestic audience.
There are a few lower key comic touches that make up the world of this movie. For example, the wind-activated siren carried by the horse riding "highway patrol" led by Zhao Benshan (Getting Home). There's also an abacus combination lock that secures Wang's safe. I don't know if either of those props is historically accurate but they fit into the logic of the movie just as well as the triple-barreled handgun. It's the sum of these fanciful touches that makes this version of the story more of a comedy than its source.
Viewers wanting to see Zhang pull off the suspense of the Coen brothers' film will enjoy the extended moments of near-silence when characters sneak about, double-crosses are revealed and the ensuing complications unfold. These scenes are played straight with careful attention to their construction and they work very well. However, what's missing is a sense that the characters are anything but types in a crime movie. They just don't seem to have enough background or depth to be completely believable. Consequently, it's a little unconvincing when they later must deal with feelings of loyalty and betrayal.
Zhang's movies have always been visually striking and A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is no exception. The noodle shop is situated as a remote outpost along a highway that meanders through desolate, rocky hills. The mountains are colored in blazing shades of red and brown. The ever-shifting clouds cast patterns of shadow and light across the seemingly unreal landscape. Costumes are bright and richly colored. There are a lot of scenes shot day-for-night and the blue colorcast and deep blacks add to the cold, minimalist atmosphere of the movie.
The video quality is good on this DVD. Colors are strong and the image is clean since the movie was shot with digital HD cameras. In the night scenes, the darkness swallows much of the detail. There was only one night scene where an edge enhancement halo was noticeable. The original language audio track is presented in a largely unnecessary 5.1 surround mix. There are a few loud moments at the start of the movie that seem to be included just to reassure viewers their subwoofer is working. The soundtrack is otherwise very quiet but scenes with dialogue are clear.
The two-hour featurette takes viewers along for the making of the movie. It's not organized particularly well aside from documenting the process in a vaguely chronological manner. There is a lot of footage of the production process and shooting on location but the best part of the featurette is witnessing Zhang Yimou at work. The director is a tireless powerhouse. He gets involved with every aspect of the movie with exacting instructions for the making of props and costumes. There is a brainstorming session where he seems to work through the entire script with additional character histories and plans for camera set-ups. Amazingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, while he is involved with preproduction on the movie, he's also planning the fireworks celebration in Tiananmen Square in Beijing for the 60th anniversary of Communist rule in China. Though I wish there was some mention of how he created the look of the movie, for fans of the director this featurette is a fascinating look at the man at work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're familiar with Blood Simple, it will be impossible to watch this movie without noting the similarities and differences to the original. For the director too, this is clearly an exercise in style over substance. What must be retained or lost to transform an American noir thriller into a Chinese period crime drama? That's not to say viewers can't simply enjoy the movie on its own merits. As a comedic, period crime story, it is plenty entertaining. Those insistent on uncovering the director's politics in this one will have to dig deep.
The movie is visually sumptuous and the story is involving, even if the characters lack depth. That being said, I think the director completely flubs the final moment of the movie and misses the chance for that dark irony that makes the Coen brothers' original memorable.
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