When Zhang Yimou announced he was to remake the Coen Brothers’ 1984 seminal noir Blood Simple, one couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. The result — a slapstick period piece with negligible tension — is just as confounding. The film is artful and playful, but the uncharacteristic humor repels even our most passive assumptions about a serious director remaking a serious film. Only if you can kick those assumptions to the curb can A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop even begin to succeed as the audacious and introspective romp that Zhang intended it to be. Any preoccupation with the original leaves you with the burden of comparison that seems as trivial and compulsory as finding Waldo. And while you’re looking for some of your favorite scenes from Blood Simple, most of the intricacies of Zhang’s film whiz past, including Sun Honglei’s fine performance as a failed hit-man. Although some scenes are lovingly translated, others vanish under the decorum.
The plot of Zhang’s remake differs most in its geography. In China’s dynastic past, a trio of hapless laborers runs a noodle shop at an outpost in the Middle Kingdom’s wild wild west. One of them, an innocent young man with cowardly lion characteristics, has secretly found companionship with the master’s wife. In the meantime, the old-fashioned Chinese police ride into town, with the most amazing whirly-gig siren, to inspect a suspicious blast that came from the area. (I won’t spoil the opening sequence that sets this into motion, but it is truly bizarre and slightly off-putting.) One of the stone-faced officers has a knack for identifying adulterers and, upon discovering the scheming couple, informs the master of the house, with the greedy intentions of making a tael or two. What ensues is a hybrid of the Keystone Cops and the sword-for-hire genre that can be entertaining, absurd, and audacious.
Ironically enough, Zhang’s fiery Ju Dou is already, in many ways, a sociopolitical version of Blood Simple. The two films share similar ruminations on infidelity and the tragic results often yielded from psychological games of deception. While the Coens’ debut is a skewed take on classic American Noir, Ju Dou (as well as Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and The Story of Qiu Ju) favor the controversial and rebellious subtexts that became the vanguard for 5th Generation Chinese filmmakers. Having long buried his social critiquing hatchet, Zhang returns to these themes in his latest via an apolitical homage combined with adulation of Hong Kong-style humor. It’s a fascinating failure in which the source material is no more than a diversion; anyone who’s seen the Coens’ original will be frustrated if they try to synch the idiosyncrasies of the two films. Hidden within Zhang’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is a deliberate remake, but it only occasionally reveals itself.
Not unlike many of Zhang’s other films, A Woman has a certain visual decadence. The costumes strike a garish cord but not without the filmmaker’s knowledge that these people, situated on the Silk Road, would have had access to the beautiful and finest cloth available. Zhang’s flair for color is kicked up a notch, mimicking television period dramas while referencing his past panache. Likewise, the Flaming Mountain-like setting not only alludes to the great Chinese novel Journey to the West, but also to the cinematic desert excursions of Tsui Hark’s Dragon Inn and Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time, as well as Zhang’s own beginning as a cinematographer on 1985’s Yellow Earth. And who can watch the wonderful aestheticized noodle scene without thinking of Vicky Zhao’s tai chi-inspired mantou-making in Shaolin Soccer? Problem is, A Woman feels like a mash-up, caught between appropriations and styles that never gel with a narrative running on autopilot. It’s an exercise in style that will simply make you want to return to its influences in order to wash the strange taste from your mouth.