When did Zhang Yimou start acting like Jean-Pierre Jeunet? A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is staged in a particular over-the-top Chinese comedy tradition, but aesthetically speaking, its opening passages are distinctly Amélie-ish, from fleet, sharp procedural montages (as when imagery of twirling flour gives way to shots of it being turned into noodles, dropped into bowls, and slurped up by hungry eaters) to its wild, funny-looking carnival caricatures. Given that Yimou’s latest is a remake of the Coen brothers’ chilling 1984 noir debut Blood Simple, the initial, overeager mood of slapstick goofiness is enough to make one cringe, regardless of the fact that noir’s bleak fatalism always flirted with, if not embraced, a strain of pungent black humor.
Broad flailing and mugging dominates the setup, in which a facial hair-overloaded Persian in ancient rural China sells the abused wife (Yan Ni) of noodle shop owner Wang (Ni Dahong) a newfangled Western pistol. This sets in motion a chain of events in which Wang, furious over the revelation that his wife is cheating on him with cowardly employee Li (Xiao Shenyang), hires shady detective Zhang (Sun Honglei) to kill both his wife and her lover. Yimou’s plotting only rarely strays from the Coens’ template, and at times his action mirrors its source material down to a compositional level (such as his camera tracing a trail of blood down an arm and hand to drip on the floor). Yet by immediately setting a tone of screechy buffoonery, Noodle Shop drains any sense of humanity—and thus import—from its portrait of rampant, lethal avarice.
That situation is a shame considering that, at about its midway point, the film sets aside most of its outrageous tendencies and settles into a fine-tuned silent-cinema groove, detailing the murderous and greedy nocturnal machinations of its various players with a tautness and seriousness that almost tips the scales back into gripping noir territory. It’s ultimately too little too late, a valiant but futile attempt to infuse the proceeding with the very emotional and suspenseful heft so desperately lacking in its early going. But in its finest moments during this middle stretch, Yimou’s latest—marked by gorgeous fairy-tale cinematography of his remote setting’s multicolored rocky terrain—exhibits the director’s still-formidable gift for evocative formalism.