By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop,” the new film from Chinese director Yimou Zhang, is his first film adapted from a Western source. It’s also his first film in a long time to use a small cast and a plot that steers clear of kings, empires, and battlegrounds.
Unfortunately, neither of these new developments serves Zhang well. He takes inspiration from the 1984 film “Blood Simple” by Joel and Ethan Coen. However, he doesn’t improve on it. Zhang’s trademark frenzied action scenes, without its epic scale to put them in perspective, seem pointlessly hysterical.
The film opens with great energy and confusion. The film takes place in ancient China in the Gansu province. A Persian merchant is demonstrating sophisticated weapons to an eager audience in Wang’s Noodle Shop.
We get the impression that everyone who is watching the Persian works together in the noodle shop. But their relationships to one another aren’t specified. This aspect takes longer than it should to become clear to the viewer.
One of the women (played by Ni Yan) purchases a distinctive three-barreled gun from the merchant. She’s the discontented wife of the noodle shop’s old and greedy owner Wang (Dahong Ni). Her three employees are the perpetually nervous Yi (Shengyang Xiao), a young waitress (Mao Mao), and the hyperactive Zhao (Ye Cheng).
With his bald head and bright costume, Ye Cheng looks like Zippy the Pinhead from the popular comic strip.
His humorous misadventures with Mao Mao make for some of the only genuine pleasures in this film.
The wife has feelings for Yi and tells the noodle thrower that he’s a better man for her than Wang. With his crusty demeanor and sadistic temper, Wang seems like a bad husband. But Yi, who can hardly prepare a simple shop order without fretting, grimacing, and sweating, doesn’t seem like much herself.
In fact, most of the character’s inner motives and feelings seem absent in Yimou’s film. The Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple” was about people who murdered for money. It was also about tragi-comic misunderstandings. It was a huge success, but it showed a lack of humane thinking. The coldly clinical filmmakers thought of human beings as ants in an ant farm, to be shaken up and killed at will. “Noodle Shop” is much of the same.
In “Blood Simple,” the main character, a private detective turned hitman-for-hire, was a wild, flamboyant man. In “Noodle Shop,” the character’s equivalent is a policeman turned hitman-for-hire, Zhang (Hunglei Sun). But he doesn’t stand out from the crowd. In fact, he’s probably the quietest character in the whole film. The other, wilder characters tend to overshadow him. As a result, we lose interest in the person who’s supposed to anchor the action.
The film’s wild antics seem too frantic for the enclosed space of the noodle shop. But on the open planes, where the living go to bury the dead, everyone seems swallowed up by the enormity of nature. Yimou Zhang needs to think seriously before remaking another Western film. Or he may just need to helm another epic. ♦
“A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” opens Friday, Sept. 10 at the Harvard Exit Theatre, 807 East Roy Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. For prices and show times, consult local listings or call 206-781-5755.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.