REVIEW: 三槍拍案驚奇 [A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop] [2010]

“You are such a wimp, the biggest I’ve ever seen”

A prolific director in China, Yimou Zhang found an audience in America with the wonderful Hero and his follow-up House of Flying Daggers. Curse of the Golden Flower came next with its stunning visuals but lackluster storyline that left me cold and uninterested, thinking perhaps his style had gotten the best of him on the almost film per year pace he had begun. But then he decided to do something completely out of left field, pushing the serious, feudal artistry of wire-work battles and large-scale wars to the side, instead choosing to transport the debut film of the Coen Brothers, Blood Simple., to the Gansu province, right on the cusp of gunpowder’s introduction to society. Known for more screwball fare, the Coens’ film was actually darker and less blatant in its humor than work to come, but Zhang, looking to possibly break free of the epics he had been constructing, took their script and infused more absurdity than maybe was needed. 三槍拍案驚奇 [A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop] is very much a faithful adaptation, but the increased humor finds a way to subvert the drama that made the original so memorable.

Taking place at a time where the police force rides in on horses, a spinning wind-powered siren shrieking as they approach, with swords sheathed at their sides, a Persian has arrived to show Wang’s (Dahong Ni)—the owner of the titular noodle shop—wife his wares. Demonstrating the precision of his swords to her (Ni Yan) and the bumbling employees at work (Xiao Shen-Yang’s Li, Ye Cheng’s Zhao, and Mao Mao’s Chen), the question of whether he has a weapon for instant death comes up, his collection of handguns revealed as the answer. Assured in her negotiations to drive the price down while Zhao’s buck-toothed confusion and Li’s body shaking fright look on, Wang’s wife purchases the three-barreled revolver and requests a demonstration of the Persian’s cannon. The blast from its explosion brings the police to their little shop, attempting to keep order within the province, threatening the noodle shop’s workers by showing their cruelty to adulterers, bringing four souls bound in arrest to face the consequences. This presence of the authorities shakes Li to his core, especially considering the affair he has been having with Wang’s wife, starting the chain of events to follow.

Through all the commotion, Wang has been in his office meticulously setting up a stage play he will later force his wife to partake in, abusing her with fist and burns as he has the past ten years. Bribing his waiter Zhao, who spills the beans of her buying a gun, his full comprehension as to why she did doesn’t occur until the Chief Detective, Zhang (Honglei Sun), stops by to tell of Li’s relationship with her. A seemingly by-the-book officer of the law, Zhang soon shows his greed for money, taking the offer of riches to murder both Wang’s wife and her boyfriend, making it all appear as though they left town to never be heard from again. The prospect of more money and the ‘moral’ decision to rather kill a bad man instead of two seemingly innocent souls lead the officer to hatch an intricate plan to frame the five noodle shop employees in an elaborate scheme of theft and murder. Able to construct each crime scene as he’d need it to look for the police to never suspect outside interference, Zhang takes pleasure in making everything just right, unknowing that the idiocy of the four people assumed asleep would put a wrench into the entire plan.

All the twists and turns from Blood Simple. are included, but while that film had an edge of suspense as it turned pitch black and serious, the filmmakers here decide to constantly subvert the tension with slapstick and over-exaggerated acting. Both Sun and Ni are fantastic in their cold-blooded, calculating characters, pitting Zhang and Wang against each other as the intelligent orchestrators thinking they have everything under control. Even Yan as Wang’s wife does well to balance the line of authenticity as a woman with nowhere to go—her husband’s cruelty driving her into another man’s arms, but the boyfriend’s cowardice causing her to take her safety, or demise, into her own hands. Headstrong and forceful at the start, a mid-film breakdown spilling her feelings and isolation truly resonates and shows how good this movie could have been if they stuck to the drama. It isn’t even just the inclusion of Cheng and Mao’s imbecilic characters as comic relief that derails the good parts, however, as Shen-Yang’s Li fails in his attempts to tightrope both aspects of comedy and tragedy. He is such a wuss for the first half of the film that it becomes hard to believe what he eventually is called upon to do.

Because of the more humorous bent, the screenwriters do a good job excising a portion of the original when the wife finds out what the boyfriend has done to her husband. His fright would have ruined all realism if they had not and her knowing look at the end serves to express it well. The changes made are crucial to allowing the plotlines to transfer over competently and I applaud them for the maneuvering. Having the private detective role change to an actual corrupt police officer is a welcome alteration too, lending more severity to the actions and need for flawless cover-up. There’s some frame for frame homage throughout like blood dripping from a shot man’s hand, the pat of a shovel on the dirt of a fresh grave, or the rays of light shining through the recently made holes in a wall, and, in the end, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is a fun companion piece to its originator. But, much like American remakes of foreign cinema, I posit the question of whether it was necessary. The cultural chasm may have rendered the comedy cheap to me while successful in China, but I can’t help think how much better this would be had it stayed true to the graveness of the first. If anything, I appreciate it as an exercise of branching out for Yimou Zhang and I look forward to his next.

三槍拍案驚奇 [A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop] 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1] Left to Right: Yan Ni as Wang’s wife and Ni Dahong as Wang. Photo by Bai Xiaoyan, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Yan Ni as Wang’s wife. Photo by Bai Xiaoyan, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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