Rating: 3 out of 5
From the get-go, Zhang Yimou’s latest picture, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, declares itself to be a remake of the Coen brothers’ 1985 noir comedy Blood Simple.
It’s a strange and novel idea, and the result is a strange but far-from-novel creation by China’s most renowned and probably most tired film director. (Who wouldn’t be, after that gig with the Beijing Olympics?)
Rudely summed up, Blood Simple is based on this premise: How ugly can things get when a Texan bar owner (living in the present time) hires a mercenary to kill his wife and her lover?
Simply summed up, Noodle Shop is based on this premise: How ridiculous can things get when a Chinese noodle-shop owner (living in Imperial times) decides to bribe a mercenary to kill his wife and her lover?
In both versions, blood is spilt and bodies pile up in a series of baffling plot twists that test the lovers’ bond and their ability to act under pressure.
For those nerdy enough to care (this writer included), Zhang and his screenwriters, Shi Jianquan and Jing Shan, have faithfully mimicked the plot structure, imagery, and even the action choreography of the Coens’ astonishing first feature. (Watch both films back to back and you’ll notice how similar the arrangement of shots is.)
But the Chinese filmmakers eschew the Coens’ pitch-black comedy in favour of a vastly different tone, one that may be described as a kitschy blend of traditional comedy forms (think xiang sheng repartee skits and Chinese acrobatics) and broad slapstick (think bad prosthetics and slip-on-banana-peel gags).
The result is a kind of bizarre live-action cartoon; an over-the-top caper of petty servants and petty lovers who woo and curse and rob and kill each other in the most ludicrous ways.
Now, the question: does it work? For audiences in China, it would appear so. (The film took in over 300 million yuan, equivalent to US$44 million, at the domestic box office last year — an impressive amount.)
For me, not really.
While Zhang executes his set-pieces with aplomb, his film is ultimately less engaging than the Coens’ for its lack of real characters and, consequently, its lack of narrative tension. It’s a romp, and little more.
If nothing else, Zhang’s remake of the Blood Simple may be seen as a kind of tribute to his American peers. But it’s a tribute that invites a stark – and telling – comparison:
The Coens started their careers by making a clever movie. Now in their fifties, they’re making films of great philosophical heft and resonance (read my review of their new movie A Serious Man).
Zhang started his career making films of great philosophical heft and resonance (Red Sorghum, To Live, amongst others). Now approaching 60, he’s wound up making a clever movie.
As a filmmaker, has Zhang Yimou run out of things to say?
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and the forthcoming Kidnapper (2010).