Reviewer: Glenn Heath Jr.
Rating (out of 5): ***
As far as remakes go, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, Zhang Yimou's colorful and ultimately punishing period piece riff on Blood Simple, might be one of the strangest in recent memory. Jumping from the dark, beguiling, and smoky Texas landscape of the original to a textured, barren mountain region of China, Zhang situates an oddly static locale where his patented surrealist color scheme can intertwine with American genre conventions. Isolated by a sea of soot-covered mountain sides and an endless teal sky, the titular noodle shop feels like its own doomed city-state, with owner Wang (Ni Dahong) as the fascist dictator, his abused wife (Yan Ni) and the three workers a citizenry of angry imbeciles waiting for chance to free them of suffering. But we get the sense that even if these messy peons were granted individualism, they'd let it blow away in the harsh winds.
Despite the drastic change of venue, diverging color palates, and overall tonal divergence, Zhang manages to address the pertinent themes of deception and fate at the core of Joel and Ethan Coen's directorial debut and film noir in general. A flurry of physical activity opens the film, with a Persian weapons dealer impressively wielding a sword, then proving prowess with advanced firearms, stimulating the weak-willed character's vehement craving for power. It's the only time Zhang's patented martial arts kinetics will come into play, and the impressive choreography acts as an exaggerated depiction of violence and absurd introduction to flaccid characters. It becomes clear early on that these are not dimensional people, but pawns in the filmmaker's game to see whom will be the last man standing.
After Wang's wife purchases a pistol for protection against her abusive husband, the machinations of the film noir plot take hold, advancing the inevitably tragic serpentine plot to its bloody culmination.
In a fascinating bit of character duality, Li (Xiao Shenyang), who's sleeping with his boss's wife, is a tightly wound ball of panic, a polar opposite to Zhang (Sun Honglei), a stoic, silent corrupt policeman who Wang hires to snuff out the adulterers. These two men don't share any screen time, yet they function as parallel interpretations of man's worst impulses. Li is dressed entirely in pink, his hysterical outbursts a marker of weakness and servitude. Zhang, dressed in blue and black warrior attire, hardly says a word throughout the film, relying on his perceptive skills of observation, brutal cunning, and smarts to survive. However, both men end up in the same predicament during the film's stunning finale, a bravura set piece that involves piercing arrows and swords, splintering wood, and layers of sharp light.
Zhang has dipped his hand in many different cinematic pools during an almost 25 year career, but A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop feels like a desperate stab at reinvention, at least from a conceptual standpoint if not a stylistic one. He seems torn between a very loopy viewpoint of American genre films and a darker, more menacing representation of the material.
While this mixture of tones doesn't upend the overall virtues of the film, it does diminish the power of certain critical moments. Whether it's Li dragging and burying a dead body beneath a bed of dusty gravel or the wounded Zhang slicing his way through a wall in the film's climax, these iconic images have little lasting impact, undermined by the insipid characters occupying the space. This tug of war between style and content ultimately makes A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop a hollow but dynamic cinematic oddity, a dazzling experiment stuck in a quicksand of familiarity and expectation.
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