This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2010.
The miserly owner of a small-town noodle shop is stuck in a bad marriage, and though he believes his wife is out to drive him crazy, he doesn't realize she's having an affair with one of his employees. He finds out that information the same day he finds out she bought a gun. The gun part is told to him by one of his other employees, and the cheating is revealed by a stalwart police officer who isn't afraid of sharing information for a few coins. The restaurateur offers the cop a huge bounty to kill both the woman and her lover and make them disappear, but the cop double-crosses the noodle man. He kills him instead and tries to frame the wife and steal the husband's money--only the safe is locked and dead people don't always stay dead.
If the plot of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop sounds familiar, it's not just because it has many archetypical noir tropes, it's because famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou has done a full-on remake of the classic Coen Bros.' potboiler Blood Simple. The 1985 debut from the Coens was a black comedy and a modern western as much as it was a crime story, and Yimou tries to retain all of these things as he transplants the lurid tale to a remote desert outpost in 18th-century China. The story is basically the same, with a few tweaks and added elements (a secondary character is trying to rob the boss at the same time as the cop), but not all of it lines up.
The fun of Blood Simple is watching the mistakes and the bodies pile up. None of these folks are criminal masterminds, they are far closer to bumbling idiots. In Yimou's version, the noodle shop owner Wang (Ni Dahong) is fed-up with ten years of a childless marriage, and his frustrations emerge as twisted role playing and perverted abuses. His scheming wife (Yan Ni) understandably wants out, and when a band of Persian traveling salesmen come by with weapons, she buys a pistol. The gossip quickly reaches Wang, and it's all downhill from there. The narrative has a lot of twists and turns, and if you aren't familiar with the original movie, you probably won't see most of the curves coming. Even if you do know Blood Simple, Yimou still effectively establishes tension in A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop. Most of the nasty stuff happens over the course of a night, and so there is a lot of silent skulking around and plenty of near misses. There is also some good slapstick and a few moments of violence that are sure to get the blood rushing. Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, who also collaborated on Curse of the Golden Flower [review] and House of Flying Daggers, even try to copy some of Barry Sonnenfeld's trademark mobile tracking shots.
The problem is, it's never quite enough. A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop has some of the humor, some of the violence, some of the visual virtuosity, but Yimou never goes as far as he could with it. The movie looks fantastic, but it's too reserved in everything else. Yan Ni turns in a great performance as the conflicted and bruised femme semi-fatale--she flips between weak and strong, confident and bumbling, seductive and shrill, without ever losing her mark--but the other characters are too broadly drawn and thus underdeveloped. Wang never seems all that hateful or menacing, the cop (Sun Honglei) is too much of a cypher, and loverboy Ling (Xiao Shen-Yang) is a total wuss. In the end, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is a curious approximation of Blood Simple, but it never becomes its own thing. Maybe it plays differently for those who don't know the source, but it doesn't strike me as a film that would stand very strong on its own.
I don't hold it against Zhang Yimou that he tried to tackle material that many might consider sacred. Given how regularly Hollywood raids the international coffers to remake stuff that was perfectly fine on the first go, it's about time the tables were turned. I'm just sorry to see one of my favorite filmmakers do so little with what is there. A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is an expertly made, elegantly crafted comedy thriller, but it's frustratingly bloodless. There's no sex, only mild violence, and none of the wickedness. I enjoyed it enough, but a meeting of such talented cinematic minds should have yielded a much more excited reaction. A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop could have been a bold reimagining or even a playful homage to Blood Simple, instead it's like being stuck at a lame party and listening to someone try to describe the movie from memory. It just needs someone to shrug at the end and say, "Dude, I guess you had to be there...."