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Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, A

Sony Music // R // February 1, 2011
List Price: $38.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 23, 2011 | E-mail the Author
Wait, what was it again that Godard said? That all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun? As you could probably guess by the title in big, bold letters up there, that's where director Zhang Yimou (Hero; Raise the Red Lantern) starts, at least. Those
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two things may not be squarely in front of the camera most of the time, but they still manage to drive pretty much everything that happens throughout his remake of Blood Simple. Most of the remakes that are churned out on these shores grab the title and premise of an earlier film but otherwise veer off in a completely different direction. Zhang takes another approach altogether, ditching the title, shifting the setting to China, rolling the clock back a few hundred years, and even slathering on some slapstick. As sweeping as I'm sure those changes sound, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop somehow manages to be shockingly faithful to the Coen Brothers' original film. At the very least, it's an extremely intriguing experiment, although...well, like a lot of experiments, it has a tendency to misfire.

Zhang doesn't twiddle his thumbs before diving in. In the very first scene, you score all three of the things in the film's title. A nameless woman (Ni Yan) looks on as a Persian arms dealer peddles his wares in her husband's noodle shop. His sword...? Ordinary. A cannon...? Overkill. A three-barrel pistol, though...? It's the Baby Bear of the arsenal: just right. She doesn't let on what she plans on using such a destructive and lavishly expensive weapon for, but whatever the end game is, she must want to keep it handy, hiding it barely out of plain sight inside the noodle shop. The timing doesn't work out too well. A detective (Sun Honglei) investigating something that sounds suspiciously like cannonfire stumbles upon the noodle shop and notices a dweeby kid (Xiaoshenyang) acting kind of squirrelly. Everything spirals downward from there. Misreading the situation, Detective Zhang tells the noodle shop's owner (Ni Dahong) that his wife is carrying on with the help, prompting an enraged Wang (innuendo kinda intended) to hire the detective to slaughter his wife and her lover. After all, who'd suspect a cop? ...but it's not Wang's wife that betrays him. It's not long before everyone suspects someone close to them of at best grand larceny and at worst killing in cold blood, and in the end...hmmm, let's just say there aren't a lot of people left to tell the tale.

A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop is so manically paced and visually entrancing at the outset that it's hard not to get swept up in the energy of it all. A sword being flung around for absolutely no reason whatsoever! Cannon fire! An acrobatic noodle-centric dance number!
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Hypersaturated colors! Fluid camerawork, deliberately distorted framing, and sharp, extreme angles! Toss in its shamelessly goofy, slapsticky sense of humor, and it's just fun...admittedly, no, not the first word that springs to mind when I think of the original Blood Simple. Most every key plot point in the Coens' film carries over here in some form, though, and as this adaptation screams ahead, the tone gets bleaker and bleaker...and the storytelling becomes more and more faithful. It can certainly be kind of uneven. I'll confess that I don't think the movie's sense of humor translates all that well to these shores. I mean, there's one scene where a character invented for this adaptation -- a dumpy dimwit with three-inch buckteeth -- tiptoes across a street. I get that it's supposed to look comical, but I had no idea it was meant to be played for huge laughs. Meanwhile, in the behind-the-scenes footage elsewhere on this Blu-ray disc, the crew is doubled over, trying desperately to rein in their laughter so they won't accidentally blow the take. Cultural differences, I guess. I don't think the slapstick is funny, exactly, but it gels unexpectedly well with the film's darker, more intense thriller aspects. There's something that hits me about a bumbling cartoon character on one side of the door, plotting to loot his boss' safe, while on the other side is a cold-blooded murderer with his sword drawn, prepared to deliver the killing blow.

Much of what I love about Blood Simple makes its way to this adaptation, and some of that's even amped up a couple of notches. At no point does anyone really understand what's actually going on. Misplaced loyalties and botched schemes keep the body count constantly ticking upward. They fail at being good. They fail at being bad. The disappointment, really, is that A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop gets so caught up in its whimsy and its visual flair early on that most of the characters come across as
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thinly-sketched plot devices. That's not to put down the performances at all -- they're uniformly great, actually -- but these characters are defined entirely by what they do, not who they are. Between that and the spastic visuals, I was constantly reminded that I was watching a movie...I couldn't get lost in what's going on, and I never felt myself at all relating to these people. The nameless wife played by Ni Yan is a very notable exception, contributing both the strongest performance and by far the most layered character, but then again, she spends seemingly half the movie sleeping. The inventiveness of its earliest moments also dims as A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop gets more wrapped up in the plot and becomes increasingly faithful to Blood Simple. Many of the same things happen in much the same way, but they lack the impact and dark wit of the Coens' film as well as ditching the manic energy Zhang dishes out elsewhere. A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop is revitalized with an appreciated burst as the film draws to a close, but there's a lengthy and uneasy sag leading up to this, as if Zhang had envisioned stylish first and third acts but wasn't altogether certain how to bridge them.

I'm not really sure how to best sum up A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop. The manic energy of the first act and the unrelentingly striking cinematography help gloss over some of the dramatic hiccups. As Zhang's inventiveness petered out, I found myself more caught up in comparing/contrasting how the same plot points played out in Blood Simple rather than feeling all that invested in the movie I was watching. I have no idea how well this adaptation would stand on its own for someone who hasn't caught the original film. (...and really, if you haven't seen Blood Simple, close your web browser and cue it up on Netflix Instant Watch right now. You'll be a better person for it. Promise.) There's enough I enjoyed about A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop that I'm glad I watched it, and I can certainly picture myself giving it another spin once Blood Simple makes its bow on Blu-ray, but I think I'd be more likely to recommend it as a rental.

A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop might be the most visually dazzling slice of high definition eye candy this side of The Fall from a few years back. There are right at 130,000 frames in this film, and every last one of them is breathtaking. The palette is bright and candy-colored in the light of day, with Zhang Yimou taking particular glee in contrasting the vivid wardrobe against the comparatively bland desert sand. Black levels are consistently deep and robust, helping lend the image an unexpected sense of depth and dimensionality. Clarity and detail are both first-rate, and I found myself marveling the most when the camera pulls exceptionally far back. The actors are just a speck on the screen, and yet they're still clear and distinct. I can't imagine how much that effect would be dulled on DVD. The texture of the digital photography is also consistently silky smooth throughout. Admittedly, the day-for-night shots aren't particularly convincing, and the sequence with Zhang scouring the desert for his lost pipe looks to have been artifically sharpened, although I wouldn't consider the authoring of this Blu-ray disc to shoulder the blame for either of those very minor faults. I try to be stingy with five-star reviews, but A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop has earned every last one of 'em.

...and the film sounds nearly as spectacular as it looks to boot. A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop arrives on Blu-ray in its original Mandarin and sports the sort of six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master
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Audio soundtrack you'd expect from a film fresh out of theaters. The fidelity...the clarity...of every element in the mix is extraordinary. This is apparent from word one, with the way I could distinctly discern each individual instrument in the opening titles, and great care has been taken to place each sound in its proper channel. The low-end is impressively robust, most memorably the devastating cracks of gunfire and the colossal thunder of a blasted cannon. The sound design here is world-class, certainly belying a budget that by Western standards is microscopic. Even though there are some shots of epic, sweeping vistas, the design does emphasize how isolated and claustrophobic a story this really is, and that's no small feat. The surrounds are used to their greatest effect during the film's more action-oriented sequences, but there are still splashes of atmospheric color throughout, particularly the howling wind and chirping of insects. An archery siege and a number of galloping horses also make for some smooth pans from one speaker to the next. I don't have the DVD of A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop handy to do a direct comparison, but with as floored as I am by the audio here, I can't imagine that a plain-jane Dolby Digital track could ever hope to come close to this. I would've liked to have been more consistently engaged by the surrounds, but that's the only thing separating this lossless soundtrack from a perfect five-star review.

A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop is presented exclusively in its original Mandarin: no dubbed soundtracks this time around. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH), French, and Spanish. Owners of constant image height projection rigs should be pleased to hear that the subtitles are contained entirely in the movie proper and don't spill over into the letterboxing bars.

  • Creating A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (120 min.; SD): Clocking in at two hours, this collection of nineteen featurettes runs a half-hour longer than the film itself. It may be worth noting that the emphasis here is very much oriented around the personalities rather than the nuts and bolts of production. There's no focus on editing, visual effects, the score, or the film's success when released a year ago in China either. I'm not saying that that's necessarily a bad thing, but this look into production does feel as if
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    it's just skimming the surface, and that's especially disappointing since some of these segments do drag on and on. Sure, it's fun to see montages of the cast singing, dancing, massaging each other, and mugging for the EPK crew between takes, but it gets stale after a few minutes, and there are lengthy dedicated featurettes on each one of those fronts.

    ...but instead of griping about what these featurettes aren't, maybe I can say a few words about what they are. For one, these aren't talking head interviews recorded in a stuffy studio somewhere. It's entirely candid footage from the production offices and on the set. The peek at pre-production is what really grabbed my attention, with lengthy looks into the hair, wardrobe, make-up, and propwork. There's quite a bit of focus on how intimately involved Zhang Yimou is in every step of the process, and the emphasis is really more on the decision making rather than delving step-by-step into how they're executed. As someone more interested in the "why?" than the "how?", I really appreciate that. Spirited discussions in the writing room, Zhang miming out action sequences, and an extended look at a first-day-of-filming ceremony are among the other early highlights. Each actor is showcased as well, and there are candid looks at how physically grueling this shoot is for them.

    It seems as if Creating... is approaching it all more or less chronologically, running from pre-production through the early days of the shoot, but out of nowhere, everything resets. A couple of featurettes start repeating themselves and recycle huge chunks of footage, although those are mixed in with a good bit of new material that make it difficult to entirely skip past. It regains its footing after that wobbly derailment, focusing again on the more physical aspects of production, such as the choreography of the noodle dance, the swordsmanship that opens the film, and an archery assault.

    There's a lot of terrific material here, but I do wish it all would've been molded into a more tightly constructed documentary. Setting its sights beyond the director and featured actors would've painted a more complete picture as well. The end result here is very good but not what I'd consider great.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): The only other extra is a high-def theatrical trailer.

A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop is a BD Live-enabled disc, but none of that functionality has been flipped on as of this writing, and there's no indication that any additional extras are waiting in the wings online.

The Final Word
I mean, we're talking about Zhang Yimou latching onto Blood Simple, shifting the setting to China in the 1600s or whatever, heaping on the unrestrained visual flair he'd showcased in such films as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and...why not?...dumping some slapstick in there too. If nothing else, Zhang deserves a nod for making such a wildly unconventional gamble, although it admittedly doesn't entirely pay off. Its deliriously over-the-top aesthetic is both the best thing about A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop and its weakest point. As visually entrancing as the film is, I'm kept at such arm's length from the characters that it's tough to feel all that invested in the parade of betrayals and deaths. After somewhat deftly blending slapstick and suspense throughout the first half of the film, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop doesn't seem as sure-footed in its bleaker second half either. I'm walking away with mixed feelings, clearly, but even though I don't think A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop is a complete success as a movie, it remains a reasonably compelling experience. That leaves me waffling between a 'Recommended' rating and a 'Rent It'. Really, though, if you're still reading after making it through the slapsticky-Blood Simple-in-ancient-China plot summary, chances are you knew you were gonna give it a look anyway, so go with your gut.
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