The remarkable Zhang Yimou (“Hero”) transposes the intricate scenario of the Coen brothers’ first film, the noirish “Blood Simple,” to medieval China in this odd but intriguing effort. The transformation requires lots of cosmetic changes, of course—the substitution of swords and arrows for guns and bullets, for instance. But plot-wise Zhang is actually fairly faithful to the original’s convoluted plot, about a suspicious husband, the younger wife who takes up with his employee, and the practical-minded fellow that hubby hires to spy on them and take care of the problem they pose. Let’s just say that the complications, and corpses, pile up in both versions.
What’s really different is the tone of “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.” “Blood Simple” certainly had a strain of gallows humor running through its veins—what Coen brothers movie doesn’t?—but Zhang has chosen to play the story out as a burlesque, with lots of comic slapstick and exaggerated performances that turn the piece into a live-action cartoon. That makes for some amusingly over-the-top moments, but demands that one be satisfied with Jerry Lewis shtick when something a bit more sophisticated than a secondary character with two huge buck teeth who has a habit of stumbling over doorsteps might have been preferable.
The cast certainly throw themselves into things. Ni Dahong chews the scenery as Wang, the cuckolded husband who owns the titular noodle shop, and Yan Ni, as his faithless spouse, and Xiao Shenyang, as her boobish beau, are no slouches either. Cheng Ye—the bucktoothed one—and petite Mao Mao are slapstick second and third bananas as the old man’s bumbling but unscrupulous servants. And then there’s solemn, stone-faced Sun Honglei as Zhang, the police deputy who’s hired by old Wang to spy on his wife but winds up looking at the stash in the old man’s safe as his ticket to personal security.
This is a talented ensemble, but frankly they work in an overdrawn, farcical style that American audiences are likely to find not just strange but, in this context, positively perverse. Except for Zhang, a humorless sort who shows himself willing to do anything to get what he wants, the picture lacks the gripping sense of menace that filled the original. Even the final confrontation between the policeman and the wife, though brilliantly staged and executed, lacks the punch of the Coen version.
Still, even if you find the film not all that pleasant to watch, it’s still a joy to look at. Even on such a relatively small scale as this (compared to “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower,” at least) Zhang creates images of stunning voluptuousness, not unlike those he fashioned in a similarly confined environment in “Red Sorghum” and “Raise the Red Lantern.” That’s not just the case with the mountainous landscapes and wondrous sunsets, but even the interiors, which are filled with the neon colors of Huang Qiuping costumes, particularly the bright pink and green that mark the wife and her lover. Zhang also serves up a visual cadenza showing the shop staff making a fresh batch of noodles for the visiting cops, including the stern police chief played by Zhao Benshan (a great face). Like those landscapes, it’s a virtuoso turn by both the performers and by Zhang and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding.
The joy of “Blood Simple” came from the fact that it wasn’t simple at all. Neither is “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.” But its visual brightness and tonal goofiness are far from the darkness of the Coens’ noir, and overall not nearly as successful.