Back in the days when Variety ran headlines like "STICKS NIX HICK PIX," people would ask about movies, "Will it 'play' in Peoria?" Zhang Yimou's A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop certainly won't, but if I'm to be entirely fair, I have to acknowledge that the picture's bizarre tonal mash-up probably plays better in Gansu.
Yimou's remake of Joel & Ethan Coen's Blood Simple transplants the action from 1980s Texas to at least a couple of centuries earlier and halfway around the world: a Chinese desert province a stone's throw from the Great Wall. There, the daily operations of Wang's Noodle Shop face a couple of ominous disruptions. Wang's abuse of his wife has become routine, but what Wang (Ni Dahong) doesn't know is that his wife (Yan Ni) has embarked on an affair with the otherwise spineless Li (Xiao Shenyang), an employee of the shop. Into this volatile situation comes a loaded gun, when, in the film's opening scene, Wang's wife purchases a triple-barreled pistol.
Once Wang gets wind of his wife's betrayal, he hires corrupt detective Zhang (Sun Honglei) to ice the illicit lovers; meanwhile, two of Wang's neglected employees contemplate robbing the shop's vault of back wages they're owed (and perhaps a little interest while they're at it). No question: there's plenty of dramatic irony to the at-odds ends of the various characters, and farcical surprise when schemes inevitably collide. And in observing the fatalism, misplaced hope, and dim desperation of those who succumb to criminal corruption, the original 1984 neo-noir did not lack for dry humor. But most will find Noodle all wet—limp, if you will—in Yimou's apparent choice to remake Blood Simple in the style of Raising Arizona.
The police chief is cross-eyed, a noodle-shop employee is buck-toothed, and everyone's decked out in garish pastel silks. A noodle-making scene becomes something akin to a martial-arts demo, the most egregious of the film's unnecessary distractions from Blood Simple's lean meanness. On the bright side, it's enough to make one better appreciate the original's deadpan delicacy. By the time Yimou embraces the story's dark implications, it's difficult to care a whit for the characters. It's not that comedy and tragedy can't effectively share time (Shakespeare, for one, proved it possible); it's that Yimou never finds the balance.
Yimou again demonstrates his visual and technical aptitude, honed in pictures as diverse as the lush romantic drama Raise the Red Lantern, the neo-realist The Road Home, and the wuxia film Hero (not to mention the epic scale of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which he also directed). Though Noodle Shop may prove especially perplexing fans of the Coens, those familiar with the original film ironically may find the remake more rewarding, in its opportunities for comparison, than those who come to the table without a point of reference. Yimou retains Blood Simple's precociously show-offy set pieces, giving them his own spin. Ultimately, the film's odd merging of cartoon comedy and horrific existential confusion is likely to put off American audiences. Or in Variety-speak, "Yanks Yak at Yimou's Yux"?
A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop dazzles on hi-def Blu-ray in a special edition from Sony. Aside from a touch of banding in the film's big-sky vistas, the picture quality is well-nigh perfect. Colors are brilliant (and black level deep), contrast spot-on, and detail and textures astonishing, creating an overall impression of significant depth that can't be matched on standard-def DVD. Crisp as it is, the image also retains a film-like texture thanks to the retention of light film grain. The picture is well complemented by a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that engages all of the speakers to create a dynamic soundfield: dialogue is never less than crisp, and the effects have a strong range from subtle to high-impact.
There's only one significant bonus feature, but it's a doozy: the feature-length making-of doc Creating 'A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop' (1:59:14, SD). Divided into the chapters “Styling the Actors,” “Workaholic Director Zhang Yimou,” “Casting the Film,” “Director Zhang Yimou Discusses the Look of the Film,” “Director Zhang Yimou Discusses the Script,” “Actors Who Like to Sing,” “The Filming Starts,” “Actors Falling,” “Actors Joking Around,” “Behind the Scenes Antics,” “In the Make-Up Trailer,” “Actors Discuss Their Roles,” “The Actors Discuss Zhang Yimou,” “Zhang Yimou Directs the Cast,” “Actor’s Features,” “First Day of Shooting,” “Time to Dance,” “Actors Trying New Things” and “Actors in Their Roles,” this staggeringly thorough look at the production deftly covers all the bases in an entertaining, all-access manner.
Lastly, we get the film's “Theatrical Trailer” (1:55, HD). Yimou fans will be in heaven when they delves into the dimensional hi-def image and terrific supplementary doc.
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