When not orchestrating stunning displays of military-strict synchronization to open the Olympics, director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House Of Flying Daggers) has spent the best part of the decade in the world of martial-arts movies. So it isn’t particularly surprising when his latest, A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop (also known as A Simple Noodle Story), opens with a balletic display of swordsmanship by an actor playing a Persian arms dealer making the rounds in the barren deserts of northern China. At least one audience member remains unimpressed, however. The eponymous woman (Yan Ni)—the noodle-shop owner’s abused, unfaithful wife—looks on and wonders what else he has. When he reveals a new invention—a three-chambered pistol—her expression shifts, and suddenly we’re in a different sort of movie. Not an unfamiliar one, however. An adaptation of the Coen brothers’ 1984 debut Blood Simple, A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop swaps an imperial-era noodle shop for the original’s honky-tonk. But the long stretches of highway, and those remote off-road sites so perfect for stashing corpses, look awfully familiar.
Though it’s a stylistic change from what Zhang’s been up to lately, this isn’t entirely new territory for him. His 1990 film Ju Dou drew on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the primary inspirations for Blood Simple. Banned in China at the time, Ju Dou led some, particularly those in the West, to see it as political allegory. That’s harder to do with Noodle, which opens as a beyond-broad comedy, then throws in what can only be called a “noodle-fu” setpiece for no good reason other than “It looks spectacular.” The film is all over the place, really, until the plot kicks in, at which point Zhang hits the dimmer and plunges everyone into darkness, even a pair of characters seemingly on hand purely for comic relief.
Locked into the pursuit of money, the characters come to realize a potential for violence they never knew they had. While Noodle’s characters sometimes seem to make choices simply because they’re stuck in a noir, the technical expertise with which Zhang ushers them to their predetermined fate is often stunning, as are the echoes he sounds between his film and its inspiration. “What I know about is Texas,” M. Emmet Walsh says against a landscape at the beginning of the Coens’ film, “And down here, you’re on your own.” Zhang erases the miles and years between one desert and the next, and finds the combination of avarice, blood, bullets, and sand leaves only the soulless and the dead.