Review: ‘A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop’
Zhang Yimou Goes Blood Simple
Monday, September 13, 2010
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Whether you like “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” (opened September 10 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) or not you have to admit that at least Zhang Yimou had the right idea about doing a remake.
Remakes like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” or Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” always baffle me. Why do a shot for shot remake of a film and essentially bring nothing new to the material? The upcoming “Let Me In” looks like it has the same approach. And the recent “Death at a Funeral,” an American remake of a British film less than three years old, offers a similar head scratcher. Why remake something if you have nothing new to say?
There have been some good remakes. John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (a remake of the 1950s “The Thing from Another World”) is a perfect example of a film that made use of better technology, and a different social and political perspective as the reasons to revisit the original. “The Magnificent Seven,” David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” and “Casino Royale” are all remakes that stand on their own and are different enough from the originals to make you think the filmmakers had a reason for the remake.
Similarly, Zhang Yimou’s “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” is so significantly different from its source material of the Coens’ “Blood Simple” that it seems justified or at least understandable as a remake. Now whether you like it or not is a whole other issue.
The Coens’ “Blood Simple” was a nasty, tightly structured noir tale of murder and deception. It took its title from a quote in Dashiell Hammet’s “Red Harvest,” and the phrase describes the addled, fearful mindset people are in after a prolonged immersion in violent situations. The Coens’ “Blood Simple” was a dark little tale, perfect in its concise focus on what happens to a group of people once lies and deceit are introduced.
Zhang begins with the same basic elements as the Coens – a woman; a gun with three bullets; her rich, older husband; a man who loves her; and a crooked detective. There is still a murder but this time no actual adultery. But the husband still suspects his wife of infidelity and hires someone to kill her and her suspected lover. The setting, however, is now China and centuries earlier, and the tone is that of a farce, at least initially.
To understand the film, perhaps we have to understand a little about Zhang. He is one of Mainland China’s premier directors. Over the decades, he’s proven to be very savvy, adapting to political and commercial changes with equal ease. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s (which caused the Chinese film industry to fall dormant and its film school to close), the young Zhang found himself sent to the countryside as part of a nationwide movement to have China’s urban youth educated by peasants. But in 1978, Zhang became one of the few students allowed to attend the newly reopened Beijing Film Academy. Its graduates were dubbed the Fifth Generation, and they had to learn how to navigate tricky government regulations with films like Zhang’s1988 “Red Sorghum.” After “Red Sorghum,” Zhang quickly moved on to lush epics like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Shanghai Triad,” recognizing that these sumptuous feasts of Asian exotica attracted foreign investors and western art house audiences. In the 90s, younger filmmakers started finding success with more modern tales, so Zhang reinvented himself again, turning his attention to contemporary, urban settings (“Keep Cool”) and the problems of everyday Chinese (“Not One Less”). Then Zhang tapped into the internationally and commercially popular martial arts actioner to deliver “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
When I interviewed him in 2007 during the “Curse of the Golden Flower” press day, here’s what he said about surprising audiences with his choices: “It is very much conscious this decision to constantly recreate myself with each film or every few years. It basically comes down to every few years you want to do something that’s going to challenge you, challenge your audience. You want to try new things and new genres. This is extremely exciting for a filmmaker because it is not only something new but it’s a way to get a handle on new film techniques that you could only exercise in a certain genre. For example, the action film has a whole set of cinematic techniques that you wouldn’t get to explore if you were doing a melodrama and I think that’s what keeps it exciting for me.”
So just as we’ve tolerated Steven Soderbergh trying random genres, Yimou seems to be trying his hand now at broad comedy. The comic approach to “Blood Simple” works on a certain level. The situation is absurd and therefore easy to find humor in. But Yimou’s comedic style, rooted in Chinese traditions, may be too broad for American audiences, and at a certain point the comedy starts to feel out of place. At that point, the film seems unsure of how to proceed, whether to force the comedy or make a dramatic tonal shift.
In a sense this film is like the old "Green Acres" TV show. Now before you get offended at me comparing Zhang's film to a TV sitcom, hear me out. In that silly comedy, everything was broadly played out and the characters seemed to operate on a different level of reality. The only person who did not fit the comedy or the broad comedy was Eddie Albert. He tried to apply logic and reason to a world that refused to bend to his will. Similarly, the detective in Zhang's film is the only one who does not come across as a comic stereotype. He too is a rational, methodical man in a world that doesn't seem to be behaving rationally. Part of the disconnect in the story comes from how he comes in conflict with the characters and environment he encounters.
While I may struggle with some of Zhang's creative choices, I have no complaints about how the film looks. Visually it is simply stunning and constantly engaging. Zhang’s use of bold, vibrant colors is breathtaking. The wife is always in brilliant green, the suspected lover in bright pink (signaling to us how inappropriate it is to accept him as her lover), while the detective is in subtle dark blue. These colors can be viewed as symbolic. In China green can represent health and prosperity but a green hat implies a man’s wife is cheating. She is a robust picture of health and she is presented to her husband as unfaithful. Similarly, dark blue in China is often associated with death and the detective is most definitely a harbinger of death. The pink, though, seems to come more from western culture with it’s association with feminine qualities. But it’s not just the costumes that are bold, Zhang makes the physical environment that these characters live in as important to the story as the Texas backdrop was to “Blood Simple.” The imposing and gorgeously hued mountains provide plenty of places to stash a body but also prove a formidable barrier to escape. They are both beautiful and oppressive.
In the end, “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” (rated R for some violence and in Mandarin with English subtitles) plays like an interesting experiment from a talented director. It’s engaging to watch yet ultimately hollow. The lack of humanity is something we sometimes expect from the Coens but not from Zhang. But maybe the desperation of these characters has robbed them of their humanity and that’s the point. The film's point seems to be to confirm the notion that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. In the case of the characters here, no amount of planning or intelligence seems quite as useful as blind luck and blissful ignorance.
Companion viewing: “Blood Simple,” “Fargo,” “Sleep My Love”
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