Zhang Yimou’s “A Woman, a Gun, and A Noodle Shop” opens with the titular woman (Yan Ni) purchasing a pistol from an eccentric Persian merchant, unaware of the catastrophic series of events about to befall the workers at a noodle shop seemingly located in the middle of nowhere. A Chinese remake of the Coen brothers’ 1984 debut, “Blood Simple”, the film is a competent transposition of many of the distinctive character archetypes and story elements that make Joel and Ethan Coen unique filmmakers. But because it accurately captures all of what made its predecessors great, it becomes difficult to escape the feeling that stories like “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” have been told many times before.
Nearly all of the action of the film takes place in the noodle shop owned by the abusive, misogynistic Wang (Ni Dahong), who, by the film’s beginning, has driven his unnamed wife to buy a pistol. Wang’s wife is having an affair with the effeminate and timid Li, an employee at the restaurant. Becoming suspicious, Wang hires a police officer named Zhang (Sun Honglei) to follow his wife and discover the truth. Supporting these four principles are Cheng Ye and Mao Mao as Zhao and Chen, respectively, who requisitely provide comic relief in the film.
The film’s greatest strength is its visual composition. Vivid colors are evident in every frame, either in the red- and beige-streaked hills of the film’s desert setting or the colorful period costumes worn by the cast (though the latter can be a bit garish at times). Li is always dressed in an emasculating pink; Wang’s wife always wears green, and so on. Despite the steady chronology of the film, Yimou also inserts some striking time-lapse shots of the desert to correspond with the escalating pace of the story. The film also highlights the visual intricacies of seemingly simple processes; for example, one sequence in the film’s opening act illustrates the formidable art of noodle-making.
The other striking element of “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” is its balanced pacing. The film is presented in three acts containing varying degrees of slapstick comedy and tense drama, with the end of each segment signaled by a shot from the gun. While the opening act is more humorous in tone, it’s not particularly noteworthy. A few laughs may be mined from Li’s constant worrying, Zhao’s oversized buckteeth, or Wang’s pratfalls, but for the most part it only serves to set the stage for events to come. The rest of the film, however, is far more engaging, as each character’s clandestine motives and actions escalate the events toward their tragic conclusion. In fact, after the first part of the story, much of the film proceeds with very little dialogue, which Yimou uses as an effective technique to increase the tension.
However, while “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” tells an engaging story, it’s hard to escape a nagging feeling of déjà vu. The successful emulation of the Coen brothers’ tropes ultimately does the film a disservice. The secretive characters who all have independent motives, the greed central to most characters’ actions, and the quasi-slapstick violence are all overly familiar if not outright predictable. Halfway through the film, it becomes easy to assume that most of the cast is going to end up dead by the time the credits roll.
“A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” is hardly a bad film. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable. But by adhering so closely to the style of its source material, it makes it difficult to consider the film as anything other than a Chinese Coen brothers movie. Though the visually lush transposition of the film’s setting may be enough for some, the faithfulness of the film’s tone makes it difficult to escape the feeling that all of this has been done before, albeit in English rather than Chinese.
—Staff writer Brian A. Feldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.