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Original title: San qiang pai an jing qi

aka The First Gun; A Simple Noodle StoryZhang Yimou’s Blood Simple

D: Zhang Yimou / 86m

Cast: Sun Honglei, Xiao Shenyang, Ni Yan, Ni Dahong, Cheng Ye, Mao Mao, Julien Gaudfroy, Zhao Benshan

Situated in a small desert town in China’s Gansu province, Wang’s Noodle Shop is overseen by its owner, Wang (Ni Dahong0, but managed and run by his wife (Ni Yan). Wang is cruel and abusive towards his wife, which has led her to contemplating having an affair with Li (Xiao), who works there along with Zhao (Cheng) and Chen (Mao). The arrival of a travelling Persian weapons salesman (Gaudfroy) gives Wang’s wife the opportunity to buy a gun with three bullets in it. Having it makes her feel safer, but when her husband is told that she’s actually having an affair with Li, he employs a local policeman, Zhang (Sun), to kill them both and dispose of the bodies. But Zhang has other ideas: he offers Wang manufactured evidence of their deaths, and then uses the gun Wang’s wife has bought to shoot Wang. What follows is a twisted and deadly game of cat and mouse between Zhang and Wang’s wife and Li, and between Zhang and Zhao and Chen, who are looking to get into Wang’s money-laden safe…

A remake of thw Coen brothers’ debut, Blood Simple (1984), Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop isn’t the kind of movie you’d expect from the director of such international arthouse successes as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). For though it may be as beautiful and visually striking as those movies, with its heavily stylised colour palette and bold desert landscapes, the movie is also a departure in that it wilfully embraces elements of slapstick humour and out and out screwball comedy (albeit in a Chinese fashion). Many of the movie’s early scenes showcase a lightness of touch and a comedic sensibility that Zhang has yet to revisit in his career, and the antics of would-be lovers Li and Wang’s wife, as well as the devious machinations of Zhao and Chen, allow the spirited cast a chance to overact wildly but to very funny effect (though bear in mind this is Chinese humour, and not always compatible with Western sensibilities; best just to go with it). As the misunderstandings and murderous plottings begin to accumulate, Zhang ensures that the humour remains a key ingredient in his adaptation, but as the movie becomes darker, so too does the comedy, until it’s as pitch black as Wang’s heart.

Fans of Blood Simple won’t be too surprised by this, as the screenplay – by Zu Zhengchao, Shi Jianquan and Zhou Xiaofeng – follows the Coens original story more closely as the story unfolds. Thanks to Zhang’s willingness to experiment with his own directing style, and to try something entirely different, the movie remains faithful while carving out its own unique approach, with its veteran director making terrific use of space and light, and editor Meng Peicong increasing the rhythm and pace as the movie progresses. It’s all anchored by a wonderfully deadpan performance from Sun, whose passive features still manage to express disdain, and boredom with events, as a matter of course. With all the crazy, buffoonish behaviour on display elsewhere, it’s Sun’s straight man who has the most impact, and he’s a pleasure to spend time with. As the would-be lovers, Xiao and Ni Yan bounce off each other with increasing delight, and there’s a terrific cameo from Zhao as a slightly cross-eyed police captain that is short but very entertaining. Zhang may not be delving into the motivations and desires of his characters as closely as he would normally, but then he’s wise enough to know that the material doesn’t require it, and by painting everyone with broad brush strokes, it helps the movie enormously.

Rating: 8/10 – not for all tastes, and certainly not the usual fare expected of Zhang Yimou, nevertheless A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is hugely entertaining, both on a comedic level, and thanks to Zhang’s skill with visual imagery; occasionally surreal, but always intriguing, it’s a movie that is handled with a deftness and a simplicity that many other movie makers would do well to emulate, and features a bravura noodle making scene that is even more impressive for giving the impression that it was all done in one take.