A Simple Plan
A Chinese remake of the Coen Brothers
by Jason Blair
A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP: Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Shi Jianquan, Xue Jianchao, based on a story by the Coen Brothers. Cinematography, Xiaoding Zhao. Starring Sun Honglei, Ni Dahong, Xiao Shenyang and Yan Ni. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010. R. 95 minutes.
While the Coen Brothers have enjoyed a long career chronicling the downfall of nitwits and fools, their first film — Blood Simple — is actually about the imbecile mind. The film is a lean noir thriller in which not a single sound decision is made, the errors in judgment and mistaken assumptions drawing a husband, his wife and her lover toward their doom. While the Coens would later discover a heroic mode — think Miller’s Crossing, O Brother and No Country for Old Men — even these dreamers and schemers still fall prey to their own stupidity, undone by the Coen truism that at day’s end, we are our own worst enemies. Now Blood Simple, in a twist that would make Joel and Ethan Coen proud, has been remade as a screwball comedy in Mandarin Chinese by the director of Raise the Red Lantern.
A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, like the story it tells, is something of a disaster. In the remake, created by influential director Zhang Yimou, who also directed House of Flying Daggers, noodle master Li (Xiao Shenyang) is having an affair with the noodle shop owner’s wife (Yan Ni). Alerted to the affair by the firing of a cannonball — that’s farce for you — shop owner Wang (Ni Dahong) hires policeman Zhang (Sun Honglei) to kill his wife and Li. Playing the M. Emmitt Walsh role from Blood Simple, Honglei brings a menacing calm to Zhang amidst the runaway slapstick of the film. While A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is visually stunning in its interior and exterior photography, the film works far too hard at being silly, resulting in an uncomfortable mash of styles and tones that make you think less of the Coens and more of Benny Hill.
Zhang accepts the assignment but fails to kill the lovers, instead presenting Wang with convincing (but doctored) evidence that the adulterers have been dispatched. From here, the film hews closely to Blood Simple, each misstep as inevitable as stairs in a staircase: Zhang kills Wang but frames Wang’s wife who, while very much alive, passes out drunk for the rest of Noodle Shop. Li finds Wang dead and, convinced his lover murdered him, covers for her by disposing of the evidence, which only confuses Zhang when he returns to dispossess Wang’s safe of the money he didn’t steal hours before. Fussy and busy without offering much to care about, Noodle Shop feels like an empty vessel, a series of parts in search of a whole.
While Blood Simple plays out almost entirely at night, Noodle Shop takes too long to reach nightfall, and the searing daylight blinds and obscures the themes and focus of Yimou’s remake. Once the moon rises in Noodle Shop, a more noir-ish tone takes hold, but by then the film’s limited capital has been spent. The pratfalls and slapstick, meant to be hilarious, destabilize the production. As a conversation between filmmakers of wildly different backgrounds, Noodle Shop is an exercise in homage filmmaking. If only it were interesting beyond that. The measure of one film’s influence on another can be a fascinating process of absorption. In this case, it’s as rewarding as watching a rabbit being digested by a snake.
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop opens Friday, Oct. 15, at the Bijou.