Chinese director Zhang Yimou and his cinematographers use color with more painterly brio than any other filmmakers of their generation. Even the titles of Yimou's early films, Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, practically splashed the audience with vivid hues. His masterwork from 1990 took a vice-ridden plot comparable to The Postman Always Rings Twice and placed it in a dye factory, surrounded by vats of blood-colored liquid.
Given Yimou's clear appreciation for film noir plots and striking cinematic formalism, it's no surprise that he admires the work of the Coen Brothers. With A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, Yimou remakes the Coen's breakthrough film Blood Simple by translating it from small-town Texas to the craggy steppes of feudal China. Not unlike the titular pistol, however, the film misfires where you least expect it.
Color-coded costumes define Noodle Shop's exaggerated characters, like the green robes of the adulterous, unnamed woman (Yan Ni) or the pink harem-style outfit of her cowardly lover Li (Xiao Shenyang), who could bear wearing Barbara Eden's "I Dream of Jeannie" costume, only with an exposed navel. Avaricious Wang (Ni Dahong) owns the noodle shop, abuses his wife and hires blue-armored detective Zhang (Sun Hoglei) to kill the couple when he learns of their infidelity.
Noodle Shop fairly closely follows Blood Simple's plot, but its light-hearted treatment of its ensemble more closely resembles Raising Arizona or The Ladykillers. Wildly exaggerated traits include a police chief's crossed eyes and a noodle chef's buck teeth that could put beavers to shame. At one point, the noodle shop cooks seemingly defy gravity to flatten a roll of dough in a set piece worthy of Cirque du Soleil. The broad comedy distracts from the more serious themes, until you realize that Yimou's deliberately portraying the roles as embodiments of human vices, comparable to the allegorical humor of commedia dell'arte.
About halfway through Noodle Shop, however, the jokes and most of the dialogue stop cold as the film follows the Coen's plot of double-crosses, larceny and murder. The original's crimes and cover-ups unfold in a violent sequence of cause and effect. It's like one hand doesn't know who the other hand is killing. Noodle Shop retains the basic events, but diminishes the scenes of mistaken identity, in which virtually everyone believes the other person has committed an atrocity and Texas, if not the universe, has lost its moral bearings.
Yimou still crafts artful visuals, particularly with the craggy, barren landscape that surrounds the noodle shop. The film's second half, however, primarily depicts scenes of the characters blundering about — Zhang laboriously sneaks in and out of Wang's office, for instance — which become inevitably tedious. Given the film's slow-paced, sinister outcome, the broadly comedic introduction sets Noodle Shop off on exactly the wrong foot. We can't invest much emotional stake in personalities sold to us as clowns. Noodle Shop retains Blood Simple's last line, but tampers with the final confrontation so it lacks the original's punch.
Blood Simple featured terrific acting from Dan Hedaya, Frances McDormand and particularly M. Emmet Walsh as the sinister, philosophical detective. Noodle Shop's players in the parallel roles give memorable performances, so it's a shame the context proves so frivolous. By hinging the film on a three-shot pistol, Yimou generates curiosity about when and at whom the gun will be fired. Nevertheless, A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop feels like creative but ultimately soulless exercise. Better to plan a Blood Simple/Ju Dou double feature instead.