There's no reason a period Chinese remake of a Coen Brothers film can't work, and here's hoping someone else tries it sometime. But for the first such entry into the world, Zhang Yimou's A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, which reworks the Coen debut feature Blood Simple, it might be best to pretend it never happened.
Blood Simple is a neo-noir classic, an tale of infidelity, jealousy, greed, murder, and coverup. In it, the characters continually make the wrong decisions based upon incorrect or ill-perceived information. It's a tragedy of errors, both lurid and banal, in the middle of nowhere Texas.
Noodle Shop takes Blood Simple's premise and plops it down in a Chinese desert, at some time a few centuries ago. (Long enough ago that a revolver is a novel idea.) Wang (Dahong Ni) is the owner of a noodle shop and abusive to his wife (Ni Yan). The wife is no saint (she doesn't get a name either), carrying on an affair with Li (Xiao Shen-Yang), an employee at the noodle shop. Zhang (Honglei Sun) is a police detective whom Wang hires to kill his wife and Li. The straightforward plot unravels as Zhang shoots Wang, Li thinks the wife did it and tries to hide the evidence, and the wife thinks her husband is still tormenting her.
Filmmaker Zhang Yimou is the man behind the martial arts spectacles Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. These films are visually gorgeous but are marked with an air of melancholy. Zhang was also the mastermind of what is, for my money, the most impressive piece of performance art in history: the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
With an eye for vivacious imagery without scrimping on the emotional underpinnings, Zhang seems tailor-made for the material of Blood Simple. He at least delivers the goods on the visual aesthetic. Noodle Shop is set in an otherworldly, orange and yellow striated desert, a topographically wild land matched in beauty only by a sky alive with clouds and moonlight.
But the emotional tenor matches neither the setting nor the plot. In fact, the film starts as something of a slapstick comedy, with an exaggerated Persian salesman plying his wares to the noodle shop crew, which includes a buffoonish bucktoothed man with one foot in the grave of Mickey Rooney's racist Asian character from Breakfast at Tiffany's. It's not the hyper-realized black comedy of a Coen picture, either — or if it is I didn't see it because I couldn't take my eyes off that pair of Chinese fangs. I'm sure it's meant to be satire, but there's no payoff.
There's no question, however, that Noodle Shop is a narratively slavish remake. The storyline seems to progress mostly to pantomime the original's formula. Rote plot points occur like an actor hitting his mark. The fresh zeal of the original is lost in translation.
The foreign trappings appended for the remake are interesting but ultimately seem like a gimmick rather than a re-imaging of the material. The upshot of Noodle Shop is less ironic than unfortunate. The characters don't feel inexorably doomed or even deserving of their fates, and the audience isn't implicated in their crimes.
Opening Friday, October 8th