Zhang's Salute to the Coens
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is nothing less than a valentine from one director to a famous team of others. Zhang Yimou has remade Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers' debut and still one of their best works, relocating the tale of adultery and murder to the past in a China desert. The story is almost identical, but the tone has been modified to include strong doses of farcical comedy. Thus, it's less a direct copy of Blood Simple, which plays it straight and mines subtle black humor from the increasing absurdity of the situation, and more an ode to the brothers' overall style and concerns: interest in the vision of a country's past; eyes for period detail and splendid, color-focused visuals; a penchant for exaggerated, screwball humor; the ability to ratchet up the tension whenever the story calls for it; and the belief that criminal schemes are thwarted most often by unplanned events and general human baseness/carelessness.
Zhang employs comedy that's a departure from his own usual style, but I believe he's earned the right to experiment. The movie contains a particularly Asian brand of humor, one that traffics in gross caricaturing, though, in spirit, it's in keeping with the Coens' own uses of caricature in several of their films. The comedy enhances the pitiful nature of most of the characters, though one of them offers a stark contrast. That would be police detective Zhang (Sun Honglei), whose serious demeanor and ultimately muderous intent provides the movie with its dark streak and gravity for suspense.
That Zhang Yimou decides to tell a story about a corrupt official as well as a woman (Yan Ni) striking out for independence shows he's still interested in playing out his usual concerns, whatever the mode of storytelling may be. He also breaks out a most gorgeous color palette -- not as rainbow-cluttered as his last two visual spectacles (Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers), but with more solid and contrasted tones, similar to his Hero. By the time he builds to the climax, dark blue skies hover over a red desert, wordiness has given way to whispers and silent interludes, and the uneasy humor of the characters' desperations become louder than the straight comedy -- and the Coen lesson of human beings being the architects of their own futility has found a foothold in China.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for some violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.