O, brothers, where art thou?
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, September 17, 2010
You might call "A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop" a cautionary tale, although that distinction has nothing to do with plot. Rather, the Chinese film offers this important take-away: Don't attempt to remake a Coen brothers movie, especially if you plan to turn the thing into a bizarre concoction of melodrama and slapstick comedy.
"Hero" director Zhang Yimou has done just that, serving up a puzzling rendition of the Coens' dark debut, "Blood Simple." Like the original, the film follows a rich man, in this case a noodle shop owner, who hires a killer to take care of his cheating wife and her boyfriend. But while the 1984 masterpiece is a sinister illustration of cause and effect, this new version is a tiresome oddity marked by shrill screaming and clumsy pratfalls.
The movie wastes no time in getting ridiculous, as a shrieking Persian (who bears a striking resemblance to Captain Hook) demonstrates his samurai swordsmanship while quick-cutting camerawork attempts to induce nausea. The characters watching the action are no less absurd and include the noodle shop owner's possibly bipolar wife, her pink-clad pansy of a lover, who falls down at least twice in each of his scenes, and a chubby, toothy oaf who seems to be parodying Mickey Rooney's painful interpretation of the Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
The film appears to be sending a clear message, which is that this movie will not take itself seriously. Except, then it does. The unsmiling detective-turned-hired-assassin played by Sun Hunglei is ruthless and meticulous. Though the rest of the characters could very well turn the movie into an impromptu musical at any moment, this killer appears plucked from "No Country for Old Men." It's as if the whole cast is in on a joke but forgot to send the memo to Mr. Serious.
On the plus side, the movie is aesthetically dazzling, which should go without saying, given that Zhang Yimou also directed the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. The camera drinks in the desert scenery, demonstrating that a nighttime shot of a horse against a mountain under a full moon can look like a work of art. And in less-static moments, the director revisits his work in "House of Flying Daggers" as a pile of papers explodes into fireworks of confetti and the act of making noodles looks impressively like something out of a rhythmic gymnastics competition.
But rich colors and fancy camerawork aren't enough to make up for the sin perpetrated by the film. While there's nothing wrong with goofy humor -- the Coen brothers, after all, have an almost Shakespearean ability to infuse their dark drama with surges of comedy -- there's no excuse for squandering a compelling story and turning it into nothing more than spectacle.
Contains violence and mature themes.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the ethnicity of Mickey Rooney's character in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." He played a Japanese neighbor.