One slippery ‘Noodle’


“A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” is Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou’s whimsical and witty homage to “Blood Simple,” the Coen brothers’ 1985 feature debut, itself a satire as much as murderous thriller. This version ratchets up the farce, tones down the blood, piles up the bodies and conjures up a very different experience in the process.

In short, you won’t feel as if you’re watching a remake so much as a comical re-imagining that taps into Chinese operatic humor in that Larry, Curly and Moe sort of way. The result of Zhang’s experimental theater will be a rich brew for some, weak tea for others -- a divide that will largely depend on your taste for a blend that is lighter on the subtext and heavier on the slapstick.

The story has the same bones as the Coens’ brilliant original: A scoundrel of a shopkeeper pays off a local gun to murder his duplicitous wife and her lover, who are busy hatching plots of their own. The conceit in both is that the double-dealing never stops, nor do the deaths, which keeps the action moving and the black comedy coming.


Whatever its inspiration, “Noodle Shop,” is very much a creature of Zhang’s distinctive imagination. He begins by turning the clock back to China’s horse-drawn days and thus free from current political sensitivities. The film stars Ni Dahong, who was also in Zhang’s 1994 Cannes winner “To Live,” as the vengeful skinflint of a husband, Yan Ni (“The North Wind”) as his conniving wife, rising comic talent Xiao Shenyang as her adorably weak-kneed young lover and the venerable Sun Hunglei (Zhang’s “The Road Home,” Chen Kaige’s “Forever Enthralled”) as the stoic hired gun. A seriously buck-toothed Cheng Ye and a pig-tailed Mao Mao serve as the bumbling wait-staff, staging their own comic coups along the way.

Where the Coens went dark quite literally as well as figuratively, making the most of moonlight, headlights and shadows, Zhang has flipped the switch, dousing the screen with light and color with an artist’s eye. The noodle shop is in a small, fortress-like outpost set in Jiayu Pass at the west end of the Great Wall, a place surrounded by sunlight and desolation -- the rolling mountains and sand dunes beautifully striated in burnt oranges, reds, purples and browns.

A traveling merchant sets things in motion by selling the noodle shop’s unhappy wife a gun just as her scheming husband engages one of the passing troops to remove her from the picture. With the stage set, the filmmaker creates an idiot’s ballet of comic moves and counter-moves as the central storytelling device -- so Sun’s soldier slips out the back of the shop-owner’s office just as Xiao’s anxious lover sneaks in, and so on. While it comes with the precision, it has none of the sheer grace of his 2004 international hit, “House of Flying Daggers.” And fans of the richly layered dialogue that characterized “Blood Simple” will find little of those artful turns of phrase here.

Zhang, though, is a master at using space to frame characters -- humans writ small and solitary against larger canvases -- a technique applied so evocatively in his seminal film on destiny, duty and marriage in “Raise the Red Lantern.” Here, the desert terrain is used to similar effect for this cat-and-mouse game, with nearly everyone playing the fool in one scene or another.

In this world of exaggerations, one of the film’s funniest moments, and a nod to the noodle in its name, has the dough kneaded, rolled thin, then flipped from hand to hand like a pizza crust, growing larger, swirling faster, spinning higher, until, until ... Zhang comes in with yet another surprise. It’s a quirky moment in “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop,” itself a quirky tale with just enough comic broth to make an amusing treat of Zhang’s noodle soup.




‘A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop’

MPAA rating: R for some violence

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes; Chinese (Mandarin) with English subtitles

Playing: In selected theaters