Playing more like a technical exercise than a serious storytelling effort, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (previously titled A Simple Noodle Story and The First Gun) can scarcely be ranked among Zhang Yimou's very best labors. At the same time it may be the most glaringly, if unintentionally, personal film that Zhang has made since 1994's To Live. In remaking the Coen Brothers' 1984 debut picture, Blood Simple, the great lion of modern Chinese cinema reveals himself at a Truffaldian crossroads, artistically unmoored and searching for renewed inspiration as he enters what should be the most creative and productive years of his life. Superficial merits notwithstanding, the film is likely to give distributor Sony Pictures Classics (no stranger to marketing Yimou's work) substantial marketing headaches. If Zhang is really questioning his own relevance, it's no stretch to imagine that audiences may, too.
Transporting the Coen's present-day American noir to rural China somewhere between the 12th and 15th centuries, Zhang finds unexpectedly compelling parallels for the original film's characters amid the ragtag denizens of a remote desert inn and noodle cafe. The owner, Wang (Ni Dahong), is a vicious and domineering miser whose deeply unhappy wife of ten years (Yan Ni) has just purchased a newfangled three-shot pistol from a passing Persian salesman (Julien Gaudfroy), very possibly the key to her liberation and a happy future with her true love, the inn's handsome but neurotic young cook (Xiao Shen-Yang). Carefully observing from the periphery is the less-than-competent wait staff (Cheng Ye and Mao Mao), who insinuate themselves into the proceedings in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fashion, ever alert to the drama unfolding around them, keen to any opening that might prove advantageous.
This already complicated chamber comedy grows even more complicated after the local police arrive to investigate the sound of a canon blast (courtesy of the Persian); thus introducing audiences to the rogue police lieutenant, Zhang (Sun Honglei), who will shortly become the catalyst for virtually every major twist that ensues.
To their credit, Zhang and his writers (Xu Zhengchao and Shi Jianquan) have left the Coen's nimble web of intrigue, double-crosses, triple-crosses, fumbled plans and mistaken conclusions largely unaltered, the whole package transplanting with impressive aplomb to the Chinese period setting. Still, it's impossible not to be acutely aware of Zhang's behind-the-scenes manipulation, the film's concluding third, played virtually free of dialogue, is virtuoso visual filmmaking minus the virtuoso storytelling that was once a hallmark of Zhang's work. Similar criticisms, of course, have followed the Coens since the release of Blood Simple, but for a filmmaker as skilled as Zhang, who has never lacked the ability to elicit powerful emotional responses, to so completely fumble the one area where he might have claimed the tale as his own? There seems no satisfactory explanation but that some sort of deep existential crisis besets the director.
That may seem like a pretentious and presumptuous stretch, but closer examination reveals a film that is less a creative remake than a calculated pastiche of two diametrically opposed genres--one American, the other Chinese. Like most global cineastes, Zhang has always confessed to a plurality of influences, but by grafting the plot of Blood Simple onto the style and setting of Taiwanese legend King Hu's famed 1966 period drama Dragon Gate Inn (capably remade by Tsui Hark as 1992's Dragon Inn) he reveals himself not simply a student of world cinema but a restless poet looking for his long-lost muse where last he abandoned her decades ago.
That Zhang stages the story as a broad, absurdist comedy, as opposed to the Coens' dark, brooding drama, is another telling point of departure. Where the Coens sought to reinvent classic American noir archetypes, Zhang seeks to resurrect classic Chinese comedy archetypes of the sort contemporary Hong Kong directors like Wong Jing have already turned into household jokes (e.g. the evil husband and his beleaguered wife, the spineless young lover/scholar, the buck-toothed fool). For fans of the genres in question, or for those with no point of reference, such choices will seem either benign or charming. From a filmmaker of Zhang's magnitude, however, they are undeniably jarring, like mismatched fragments of older, better movies combining to form the backbone of a frustratingly competent mutt of a picture that never disappoints, yet never truly enthralls.
With the exception of but a handful of experimental detours (Operation Cougar, Keep Cool), Zhang's career can be broken down into three phases: an initial burst of powerful, poetic and vaguely allegorical assaults on the system he faulted for the horrors of the Cultural Revolution (all starring then companion Gong Li), followed by a series of unapologetically sentimental parables rooted in a seemingly newfound faith in a brighter Chinese future (following his breakup with Li), segueing into an unexpectedly exhilarating embrace of classical Wuxia-style martial arts filmmaking. However gradual the progression, it seems eminently clear that Zhang's augmenting fame and success have increasingly distanced him from the pain and alienation that informed his devastatingly powerful early work. With A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop Zhang seems to have hit the proverbial wall, ever the skilled technician but wholly lacking in the passion that once defined him. That he is primarily dabbling in borrowed passion here could herald either stagnation or rebirth; only time will tell. What seems undeniable is that Zhang, for the first time in his career, is confronting the demons of artistic indecision.
Such career trajectories are certainly nothing new in the arts, particularly in cinema. But the parallels between Zhang's career and that of Francois Truffaut, whose own role as poet laureate of France's "New Wave" closely mirrors Zhang's similar stature among his "Fifth Generation" colleagues, are particularly striking and help shed light on where Zhang could go from here. At the time, it seemed unthinkable that the impassioned director of such personal and revolutionary films as The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim could go on to make films in Hollywood (Fahrenheit 451), emulate Hollywood models (The Bride Wore Black) and even wax sympathetic for the bourgeois trappings of Hollywood (Day for Night), the latter proving too much for even his longtime friend and colleague, Jean-Luc Godard, who quite famously terminated their friendship in the wake of its release. But few present-day historians would necessarily support the notion that Truffaut ever stopped being the filmmaker he always was, as The Last Metro would so magnificently prove. In the end, his struggles and stylistic detours served only to sharpen his skills and strengthen his connections to his past, enabling him to deliver some of his very best work in his final years.
Not that such analogies will mean much to any but Zhang's most ardent devotees; didactic navel-gazing rarely gains much traction outside the realm of film school semiotics. When all is said and done, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop will rise or fall on its own merits. Those looking further down the line, however, hoping for a return of the man who once pierced their souls with such classics as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, can take guarded solace in knowing that a period of long-overdue self-reflection is finally at hand.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Sun Honglei, Ni Dahong, Yan Ni, Xiao Shen-Yang, Cheng Ye and Mao Mao
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriters: Shang Jing and Shi Jianquan
Producers: William Kong and Weiping Zhang
Genre: Period comedy; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Rating: R for some violence.
Running time: 95 min
Release date: September 3, 2010