Four years (and several Olympics duties) after “Curse of the Golden Flower,” mainland Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou returns with the much more ascetic, chamber-like dramedy “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.” A pretty close adaptation of the Coen brothers’ 1984 “Blood Simple” but relocated from the flatlands of contempo Texas to the hilly deserts of Shaanxi in Ancient China, the pic is spiced up with some pratfall humor (trimmed in Sony’s international version screened at the Berlinale) and visually enhanced by saturated lensing of the dusty red landscapes that slightly recalls Zhang’s “Hero.” Modest specialty biz looks likely.
In China, where it was released mid-December (with the English title “A Simple Noodle Story”), pic took a tasty 261 million yuan ($38 million) in six weeks, more than recouping its sizable reported budget of around $12 million. Though “Noodle” is less spectacular than Zhang’s recent movies like “Curse,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero,” the casting of popular local comics in several roles — including hot new name Xiao Shenyang as the young lead — was a contributory factor.
Plot adheres to the essentials (and even whole scenes) of the Coens’ script, though culturally the movie is utterly Chinese in its characterizations and occasional references to Beijing Opera (notably “San cha kou,” with its multiple double-crosses in an inn). Western auds familiar with “Blood Simple” will get a kick out of the reinventions — and the script by Xu Zhengchao and Shi Jianquan actually tightens up the original’s rather digressive second half prior to its final shootout.
In the middle of a vast empty desert, bisected by dusty gullies, stands a solitary roadside inn run by grouchy old skinflint Wang (Ni Dahong) and his vampy young wife of 10 years (Yan Ni). For the past couple of months, the wife has been canoodling with sappy young cook Li (Xiao). The only other staff are a bozo waiter, Zhao (Cheng Ye), and equally dim waitress, Chen (Mao Mao), who haven’t been paid for some time.
Zippy opening sets up pic’s comic element as a flamboyant Persian trader (Julien Gaudfroy) comes by and demonstrates the new western invention of guns, finally selling a three-barreled model (along with three bullets) to Wang’s wife, who’s just about had it up here with her old man’s ill treatment. The gun, with its three avaliable shots (referred to in pic’s Chinese title), will play a crucial role in the chicanery to come.
Alerted by the noise of the Persian’s demonstration of his wares (including a large cannon), the local police force drops by and the staff whips up a meal of noodles preceded by an impressive display of culinary kung fu (this version’s only crowdpleasing action sequence). In local terms, the scene is mainly a showcase for a cameo by comedian Zhao Benshan as the police chief.
Some time later, however, the chief’s deputy, Zhang (Sun Honglei), drops by alone and tells Wang that his wife is having an affair with Li. Wang hires Zhang to murder the couple and bury them in the desert; when Zhang returns with “proof” of the dirty deed, he collects his money and shoots Wang with the wife’s gun.
Coen aficionados won’t be surprised by any of the subsequent twists in the tale, and general auds will be pleasantly amused, as Zhang tries to manipulate events for his own purposes (the small fortune in Wang’s office safe), the bozo employees also try to muscle in, and the bodies start to pile up.
Though helmer Zhang frequently lingers over this or that cloudscape, landscape or sound effect, and frequently stresses the utter isolation of the inn, “Noodle” has none of the simmering badlands atmosphere of “Simple”; Sun (in the M. Emmet Walsh role) is a poker-faced cop with a procedural attitude to his crimes.
Apart from Cheng and Mao Mao, who provide most of the effective humor as the two dumb employees, it’s Yan (so good in her small role in Guan Hu’s recent “Cow”) who provides most of the color, from her duds to her temper. Xiao is OK but has a colorless role.
The exact era is never specified, and some design elements (such as the blue-black outfits of the police) are there simply for visual contrast, especially when set against the red-streaked, rusty landscape. P.d. Han Chung’s inn interiors are immensely detailed, with the borderline ramshackle look reflecting Wang’s meanness.
For the record, pic’s international version is four minutes shorter than that released in China and Hong Kong.