Dir:- Zhang Yimou
Starr:- Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni, Ye Cheng, Mao Mao, Benshan Zhao
For the best part of a decade Chinese cinema has been growing in international stature, a process accelerated by the crossover smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, back in 2003. American remakes of South-East Asian cinema have been fairly common in recent years, with Hong Kong films such as The Eye and Infernal Affairs (the source for Scorsese’s Oscar-winner The Departed) joining a crowd of South Korean and Japanese horrors and thrillers in having an English-language facelift. A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, however, bucks this trend, and in so doing potentially creates a new cinematic paradigm. This will be the first film that many ‘English-speaking’ audiences will have come across, that has made the reverse journey from America to China.
Based upon The Coen Brothers debut movie Blood Simple, this film is a bizarre hybrid of western, Chinese epic, film noir and comic folk tale. Whereas the original movie was a taut Texas-set neo-noir, that utilised its balmy southern locale to enhance its tense and claustrophobic atmosphere (much like The Big Easy), this Chinese remake takes place in the ancient past, in a remote part of the Chinese empire, amongst the servants and wives of a wizened old feudal lord, called Wang (Dahong Ni). Visually the differences between the two films are particularly pronounced, with the original using a dark and swampy palette to paint a murky world of misdeeds, misunderstandings and abstruse machinations. By comparison, A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, is shot in a hyperreal blur of garish primary colours, that is both beguiling and more than just a little camp. This intensely coloured, high-gloss tone gives the adaptation the feel of a comic-book, which although a million miles from the sleazy, grimy feel of the original, does actually help to import much of that work’s carefully cultivated artifice.
It’s really not at all surprising that The Coen Brothers work could serve as the basis for such a cross-cultural translation. Of all the major modern American filmmakers, Joel and Ethan have, until A Serious Man, always appeared to be the auteurs most comfortable when creating new archetypes of older Hollywood forms (think of The Big Lebowski as a languid caper-comedy, or The Hudsucker Proxy as a Capraesque feel-good comic drama). Despite the surface eccentricities of their characterisations, or the snappiness of their terse Hawksian dialogue exchanges, the brothers have underscored their most successful works with a strong understanding of the potential ‘universality’ of certain story tropes (consider the sheer volume of classic literary references that form the foundation of their oeuvre, from Nathanel West’s dissection of Hollywood in The Day of the Locust, surfacing intermittently in Barton Fink, to the omnipresence of The Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Even though Blood Simple would appear to be, primarily as a result of the excellent location work, a particularly American movie, the Coen’s are really detailing a narrative that transcends place and time, thus making it ripe for this kind of cultural appropriation.
What is most unusual about this remake is the creative imagination behind the camera. Veteran Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou, who initially made his name with the extraordinary historical tragedy Raise the Red Lantern (parodic echoes of which can be felt here), moves away from recent forays into the big-budget, symphonic action epic, such as Hero and the breathtakingly beautiful, but almost entirely vacuous, House of Flying Daggers, to focus his undoubted cinematic talents upon what is, in effect, a tiny, chamber piece, of a movie. The film takes place in a hilly, desert landscape which is startling to behold, particularly as the near-crimson colour of the sand makes it appear like the surface of some alien planet. By selecting a few carefully composed establishing shots, Yimou manages to suggest a vast, desolate wilderness within which Wang’s modest palace is a remote oasis of civilisation. Similar to its cinematic source, the film revolves around the convoluted affairs of two young lovers, one of whom happens to be Wang’s favourite wife (played as a truly silly young woman by Ni Yan), and their seemingly simple ruse to divest Wang of his vast wealth. Into this most straight-forward of plotlines comes the complicating presence of Zhang (Honglei Sun), a supposedly by-the-book Imperial police officer (M. Emmet Walsh’s delightfully odious PI in the original) who sees an opportunity to exploit the situation for his own considerable gain. Corruption is the name of the game here, with money, in particular, seen as having the most corrupting influence. Xiao Shen-Yang’s Li initially cares little for material gain, rather showing a naive love for Wang’s wife. However, the seductive allure of the masses of metal currency Wang keeps stored up in his safe, proves too much for all of the servants Wang keeps under his roof, as well as the aggrieved police officer, to resist. To this end the adaptation could be seen to import a sly critique of market values, particularly as in such a bright and colourful movie, most of the filthy monetary transactions occur in the relative obscurity of nightfall, condemning them to be considered as in some way despicable.
Although Yimou does an admirable job of importing the main plot arc from Blood Simple and making it seem like an authentically Chinese narrative, one of the glaring failures of this exercise in cross-cultural pollination, is the way in which Ni Yan’s wife role operates within this different context. A subtle aspect of the original movie was its focus on the gradual evolution of Frances McDormand’s Abby, from a trapped woman almost completely reliant on the men in her life, to someone able to be self-reliant and possessing hitherto untapped inner capabilities to liberate herself. In Yimou’s movie, mainly as a result of the adaptation’s focus on comic and slapstick elements, Ni Yan’s role is completely lacking in such development, which turns the conclusion into a much less affecting, or rewarding, psychological experience, reducing it instead to a fine action set-piece. This difference in characterisation when placed alongside the markedly distinct use of landscape and locale, would appear to point up a cultural recalibration. The Coen’s original used the Texas locale and sweaty, claustrophobic interiors to show how men exert a degree of dominance over certain spaces, that then become an extension of their individuality (Visser’s car, Julian Marty’s club, Ray’s bar), as well as showing the way in which individual personality emerges from such terrain. Whereas, Yimou’s Chinese version dwarves individual identities against an intimidatingly gigantic landscape, placing much more emphasis on the action’s of the group rather than the action’s of individuals. This can lead to spectacular and hypnotic little sequences, such as the acrobatic noodle-making scene at the opening of the movie, but also leads to more ritualistic activity, such as the protocols of the palace, which make it harder to empathise with any one, particular character.
Yimou has an exceptional eye for the composition of cinematic shots, with some of the interplay between colours, such as the blackness of the blood at night and the interior decoration of the palace, being simply stunning. However, the movie does suffer from an unevenness of tone. The comic goings-on of the servants, seem to be occurring in a different film from Honglei Sun’s supremely self-contained and menacing performance as Zhang, whilst the elements of theatrical violence and slapstick comedy only really cohere in the climax to the film. Xia Shen-Yang and Ni Yan are both highly irritating presences throughout the movie, but they pale in comparison with the excruciatingly unfunny imbecility of Mao Mao and Ye Cheng’s distracting double act, as Zhao and Chen respectively. Part of the perceived failings of these roles, could be to do with an inability to read these characters within a set of Chinese narrative archetypes, potentially. Regardless, it will be intriguing to see whether this pretty little failure of an adaptation will become the initiator of a new cultural transaction paradigm between American and Chinese cinema. Big Trouble in Little Los Angeles, perhaps?