by HELEN GEIB
Somewhere in western China, in a province of deserts and mountains. Sometime in the 19th century, or thereabouts. An isolated roadside teahouse serving travelers, although we never actually see any; only a merchant caravan that sells the lady of the house a revolver and a company of soldiers on patrol from the nearest town. The proprietor is an old skinflint with a young wife he bought a few years before as a child-bride. Alienated by his constant abuse and terribly lonely, she’s having an affair with a weak-willed young man who works for them. The owner hires one of the soldiers to first investigate the affair, and then to kill his wife. Meanwhile, the soldier has his eye on the safe….
Fans of Joel and Ethan Coen will recognize this scenario from the brothers’ first feature, Blood Simple. Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop holds fairly closely to the set-up and plot of the original film while re-imagining the characters, particularly the wife and her lover, and adopting a much different tone. It’s a remake that riffs on its source, playing off it like the Coens’ neo-noirs and screwball comedies play off theirs.
The principal change is that Zhang has re-cast the story as black comedy. There’s a new comic subplot starring the cook (the counterpart character to the bartender in Blood Simple, but a completely different character type); his bumbling attempt to raid the safe a comic foil and hindrance to the soldier-hired killer’s. The lover is now a sadsack loser whose final scene plays like a cosmic joke, divine punishment for growing a spine. The dark comedy of Blood Simple, exemplified by the husband’s negotiations with the hired killer, is carried over and expanded, with sequences like the burying of the body now played for (bitter-tasting) laughs instead of suspense. The end result is a movie that plays more like the Coens’ recent, vicious comedy Burn After Reading than their homage to film noir debut.
The film is the visual feast we expect from its director. The gorgeous costumes are a medley of brightly-colored silks. Composition and color make for a parade of still-worthy shots. The play of light over the rocky desert landscape is mesmerizing. Even if the black comedy of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop isn’t your cup of tea, and to be honest it isn’t mine, the movie is worth seeing just to see it.
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Other new releases this week: Conviction, Let Me In, Never Let Me Go, The Tillman Story