REVIEW: Noodle Shop Stays Close to Coen Brothers Source, But Not Close Enough

Movieline Score: 7

An unlikely, unwieldy transplant of the Coen brothers classic Blood Simple to an indeterminate, dynastic domain of China, Zhang Yimou's A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop follows its master with the tumbling, untroubled constancy of a puppy. There is novelty in Zhang's fidelity to the blackly circumstantial clockwork of the Coens' neo-noir plotting, set here in the phantasmagoric realm of a wuxia opera. There also emerges a nagging glibness that regularly gets the best of some inspired filmmaking. In its most tiresome moments, Noodle Shop overestimates the wit of its formal exertions, and feels less like a film than an exercise that will leave fans of the original comparatively cold.

We are not in Texas anymore, that much is clear. Zhang has noted that, as a long-time fan of the film, he was one day struck by an idea: "What would it be like if Blood Simple was made as a Chinese story?" I think what the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers meant was: "What if it was set in a fantastical Himalayan outpost that was populated by screwball exaggerations of the kinds of characters I favor in my films?"

The types are proudly broad and clad in theatrical drag designed to reach the cheap seats: An unnamed "woman" (Yan Ni) is cheating on her much-loathed husband Wang (Ni Dahong), who owns the noodle shop where she, her lover Li (Xiao Shenyang) and a pair of respectively bucktoothed and cross-eyed bumblers work. When a shady outsider/arms dealer passes through and demonstrates the latest in weaponry -- a gun and a cannon -- a welcome twist on the original is executed with a neat little flourish: Having never handled a gun, or seen a Coen brothers movie, they have no idea how much trouble the mere acquisition of one betides its owner.

Zhang found a location that upstages even the demonstrative styling of his characters: The wind-battered noodle shack stands like a Western saloon in the midst of range upon range of brindled, rock candy mountains. Through them a fleet of warriors travel on horseback, drawn to the noodle shop by the cannon's crash. Zhang has a keen sense of the discomfiting power of sound, and he deploys it to eerie effect every time the cavalry rides in: dozens of hooves beat out a primal drumline against the sand; a queer, droning siren announces their imminence. Having searched the joint for contraband and eaten their fill (a joyous, frankly amazing martial noodle-making sequence precedes their feast), the men, all clad in textured, cobalt blue armor, ship out. An observant, impassive soldier named Zhang (Sun Honglei) senses drama between the adulterous couple, and brings his case to Wang, who eventually hires Zhang to rub the lovers out.

Half a dozen conflicting motivations are set onto a collision course, and in a series of slow-boiling slapstick sequences and pure cinema set pieces, Zhang charts each clueless course with a combination of mindful tribute and autonomous glee. He splits the difference between the Coens' signature mordant ratcheting of suspense and his own, less sophisticated comic sensibility, and the results are mixed. One scene involving a repetitive course of snoring, lock-picking, safe-cracking and sword-drawing far outlasts its potential; Zhang doesn't have the spatial mastery and pacing instincts to sustain it. In another long, wordless sequence the pitch is better calibrated, and Zhang's witty, hyper-visual flourishes punctuate -- rather than deflate -- the tension building between two planes of action that only we know are bound to converge.

That privilege -- and the deft handling of dramatic irony -- is one of the great, collusive thrills of Blood Simple, a film about who wants what, who knows what, and -- most importantly -- who's got the gun. We watch from an omniscient perch, feeling unaccountably flattered and superior, suppressing the idea that the Coens' deceptively nihilistic moral universe -- one bad decision and Murphy's Law is declared; a world of chaos and coincidence is ordered into a predictable set of worst case scenarios -- could swallow any one of us in a blink. Zhang's playful, farcical gloss on that universe places us solidly outside of it, where the view's pretty good but the dramatic impact is close to nil.


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