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It's like this: Whether you know what goes into constructing a story because you've done so yourself or because you've just seen and/or read so many of them that the formulas are embedded in your mind, a lot of times it's tough not to look where they don't mean for you to look, the marionette wires maneuvering it, the groundwork holding it all up. When you remake a merely twenty-year-old cult classic by filmmakers with an enormous cult following, a story everybody knows, it's one thing to tell the story in a different style, or to change certain things, but anachronizing everything to an arbitrarily different time period, culture and characters, we are only really looking for all the anachronisms, waiting for them, being let down, occasionally being gratified.
The time period is never specified, but what I expected was going to lead to interesting dramatic twists on the Coens' plot was that it begins with the sale of a gun, which the cheating wife and the ridiculous slapstick moron noodle-makers find foreign and unheard-of. The gun is apparently a pretty new invention. But Yimou, who normally cares profoundly about his characters, loses his passionate emotional dominion over his actors. He dries out the original's sultriness, trades humid night for arid day, and strains for slapstick. That would be perfectly fine if he traded those elements in for something just as or hopefully more effective, but he does not.
The Coens' original Gothic film noir, fanged and toxic like snake venom, dwindles here to the point of amateur slapstick. Though the exterior shots make almost psychedelically atmospheric use of red and orange sandstone, day for night, sunrise and sunset, the characters are never more than ugly, overwrought cartoons. I'll admit that Blood Simple was not the quintessence of character arc. Nobody really seemed to change in that film, despite having a wryly farcical lack of conception as to what's happening. So at the outset of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, when the adulterous lover, originally played by John Getz, is a redefining coward, I was pleased, because, knowing what this character must later do, I felt I was in for a true character transformation. To describe the outcome without spoilers: No such luck.
Aside from its inevitable comparison---one of the reasons, in hindsight, it's fated to be a letdown---Noodle Shop is simultaneously frantic and dull, with no hint of the restraint or meticulous concern with form exhibited in Yimou's own earlier blockbusters. Like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, and even as early as Ju Dou, the stars of the show are ultimately Zhao Xiaoding's mostly gorgeous cinematography, Tao Jing's evocative sound design and Yimou's choice of otherworldly locations. But all its visual brightness and tonal goofiness are far from either the literal or conceptual darkness of the fundamental story. Most damning is that the effort to recreate the remarkable final shot of Blood Simple is so tacky and clumsy that I reflexively sighed in revulsion. Zhang needs to reconnect with the fierce, principled, humanistic sensibility that made him one of China's finest film artists.
So the result of this uneasy mix of ironic screwball affectation, particularly evident in the big comic close-ups, and Zhang's majestic but mostly show-offy imagery is triteness, artifice, unevenness, and pretension so immoderate and pointless as to have defiantly stylish interest. If the cast were comprised of John Waters, Elvira, Pee-Wee Herman and RuPaul, it would be less kitschy.
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