Monday, August 30, 2010

One-Upping the Coens: A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop

Maybe their take on True Grit will be different, but the embarrassing Ladykillers suggests the Coen Brothers should leave remakes to others, like Zhang Yimou. Transferring Blood Simple to Imperial China, Zhang preserves all the hardboiled character of the original while adding a layer of outrageous visual humor in A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Reportedly a hit with audiences at the 2010 Berlinale and the Coens themselves, Noodle is quite faithful to the plot of the original Blood. In China’s remote northern desert, the wealthy Wang lives with his caustic wife and the employees of his noodle shop. Abusive towards his wife and too stingy to pay his veritable captive employees’ wages, he makes everyone around him miserable. His wife is getting ideas though. Carrying on an illicit affair with the meek Li, she buys a gun from an itinerant merchant who seems to have stepped out of Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen.

According to her plans, divorce will flow through the barrel of the gun she instructs her spineless lover to hide. Unfortunately, Wang gets wind of her intentions, hiring the corrupt patrol officer Zhang to murder her first. As those familiar with the Coen Brothers’ film will expect, the double crosses come fast and furious from this point on, but Zhang (the director) adds a really cool scene of Li spinning noodles like its gravity-defying pizza dough, truly distinguishing Noodle from it inspiration.

Some stick-in-the-mud critics seem determined to nit-pick Noodle, asking how Wang’s noodle shop in the remote Shaanxi province could stay in business. One could just as easily ask how Norman Bates could afford to buy groceries. Who cares, just go with it.

Volumes could also be written about the political context of director Zhang’s body of work. He was banned from filmmaking for two years for the unvarnished depiction of the Communist government’s collectivization campaigns in To Live, but his martial arts epic Hero has been criticized for a perceived allegorical subtext perhaps arguing in favor of a strong centralized Chinese government. In contrast, Noodle does not readily lend itself to ideological interpretation.

Instead, it offers thoroughly entertaining skullduggery and some wacky (if often violent) humor. Yet, it all works because the entire cast plays it straight, including the stone cold stone-faced Sun Honglei as Officer Zhang. As Wang’s wife, Yan Ni is a fantastic femme fatale, keeping in character throughout some rather incredible situations. Cheng Ye (and his conspicuous teeth) is also clearly game for some over-the-top physical comedy, while moving along the noir plot nicely.

Throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, Noodle has a wickedly playful spirit. Still, it has a tactile sense of place thanks to Han Zhong’s painstakingly crafted sets. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding also makes the forbidding landscape sparkle through his lens. As a result, Noodle has a classy, art-house sheen, but it is still just a ruckus good time at the movies. It opens Friday (9/3) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.