Watching a criminal cover his tracks at the scene of his crime has to be one of the guiltiest pleasures to be had at the movies. From wiping down traces of fingerprints to re-adjusting props and furniture in a way that might stave off suspicion and securing a hasty exit, everything is done in silence and with the readiness to strike if he were discovered at any moment. Director Zhang Yimou’s “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” benefits handily from scenes like this, distinguished by precision filmmaking that amplifies suspense and even gets us rooting for the villain.
Yimou’s tale of crime and deceit is a remake of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut “Blood Simple,” transplanted to a Chinese frontier province a few centuries ago (the time is never established). Here, a wealthy, bitter and aging noodle-shop proprietor, Wang (Ni Dahong), ruthlessly lords over his young wife (Yan Ni), whose name is never given. Physically and emotionally abused, the wife finds intimacy with one of Wang’s cooks, Li (Xiao Shenyang), a sweet-natured milquetoast, ever paranoid that his boss is on to their affair. Swearing to kill him one day, the wife buys a gun and stashes it away.
When the mercenary patrol officer Zhang (Sun Hunglei) confirms the affair, Wang offers him a substantial reward if he kills the lovers. Zhang agrees, but he has something more sinister and ambitious in mind. Intending to rob the proprietor of his fortune and frame the lovers, he kills Wang using his wife’s gun. But, after that, everything gradually falls to pieces as Zhang must contend with the buffoonish but crafty Zhao (Cheng Ye), another of Wang’s employees, who also has his eyes on his boss’s fortune, and then, once Li discovers Wang’s body, he must hunt down the lovers fearing they know too much.
The plot mechanics of “A Woman, a Gun and Noodle Shop” is forgettable pulp. Furthermore, Yimou’s handling of the “Blood Simple” storyline is choppily paced, frequently jumping between parallel courses of action, impairing our involvement with any single character. Yimou also resorts to interjecting shots of racing clouds and the rising moon, a strategy meant to invoke doom and tension but, to this viewer, felt like haphazard visual filler.
The multiple characters here with their scattered motives can be a chore to keep track of because, by and large, they’re not compelling enough. As the lovers, Li is too timid to elicit our sympathy, much less respect, while Wang’s wife is too shrill (and as a passionate woman, her attraction to the cowardly Li seems implausible). Ye’s performance as Zhao draws too broadly from the buffoon stereotype of Chinese comedy to come across as a fully rounded character. Still, the actor demonstrates admirable timing and finesse in what is a nicely realized slapstick role. And while Dahong is aptly venal as the shamed and desperate Wang, it’s Hunglei’s work as the stone-faced, unflappable Zhang that dominates the film’s performances.
The stars of the show, ultimately, are Zhao Xiaoding’s gorgeous cinematography, Tao Jing’s evocative sound design and Yimou’s choice of otherworldly locations. Surreal panoramas of rugged, implacable mountains, the whisper of winds through the passes, the steady hoofbeats of galloping horses, and the clank of a metallic object puncturing the silence of a murder scene, all of these lend Yimou’s film a richly mystical, dream-like quality. It’s through such elements that the movie transcends its own weaknesses, and becomes a lingering, artful experience.
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Written by: Shi Jianquan, Shang Jing
Cast: Sun Hunglei, Xiao Shenyang, Yan Ni, Cheng Ye, Mao Mao, Ni Dahong