A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop

November 8, 2010

Zhang Yimou fans might wonder if, with his latest feature, A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop (also known as A Simple Noodle Story, 2009) he has lost the plot as he recycles one used many times before. But that would be too easy a dismissal of a great auteur’s exemplary vision of how cinema is so much more than just a simple story. A remake of a film by a filmmaking duo who pretty much only remake other people’s films (Joel and Ethan Coen), matched with a kind of cinematographic pastiche that some might think better suited to the likes of Quentin Tarantino, and a colour palette so rich it rivals Tarsem Singh’s The Fall (2006) and Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (Bakjwi 2009), Yimou’s Noodle Shop is entirely original; its use of aesthetics and context to (re)tell a simple, well-known story proving that universalism in narrative cinema doesn’t have to be unimaginative in the least.

It is well established within the world of writing that there are only seven basic plotlines in narrative storytelling and from those plotlines evolved an economics of predictability that provides the very foundations upon which film genre theory is built. In lieu of this it seems almost absurd to talk about this film’s “story” in a context that compares and contrasts it with the Coens’ film Blood Simple (1984), or for that matter The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) upon which Blood Simple itself is based. That’s not to say that the story is unimportant or superfluous, it is of course integral, especially as this film fits a classical narrative paradigm whereby narrative progression is very much motivated by causal events. But seeing as the story is familiar or known to audiences, both its visual style and its contextual setting bear greater significances as they inform said “story” to an entirely new end.

A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop is set in a non-specific period of Chinese feudal society. Quite literally deserted, the story is of inexplicably wealthy Wang, his wife, and their servants – one of which Wang’s Wife is having an affair with. With little to do and no customers other than hawkers and the Law, Wang’s Wife fantasies about killing her cruel, abusive husband and taking up with her lover full-time and so, buys herself a gun. Our title provocations now successfully established; who, what, where, the Law arrive to search the premises for a canon, setting in motion the causal events to follow.

This surprise visit from the Law being the only instance in the film where Wang’s noodle shop has any customers to speak of (and they aren’t paying customers either), the inference is that Wang’s wealth is the product of corruption rather than business. On learning that his deceitful wife has armed herself, he then enters into a “contract” of sorts with The Captain, paying him to take care of the situation, which further clarifies that the Law is also corrupt. Though I am far from an expert on Chinese history, I have seen and know enough, even just of Yimou’s oeuvre, to understand that in positing lovers against the rich and powerful in society, Yimou is highlighting the adversity that faces the proletariat in China and, in setting the time somewhere in China’s feudal past, is commenting upon the resonances of so oppressive an history.

Add to this the incredible and vibrant colour palette that Yimou is famous for; where reds and blues don’t “feature”, rather they own the frame, positing communism and conservatism against one another to great effect. The lighting is so carefully and soundly executed in every shot that the actual colour and role of the landscape seamlessly changes from day to-night, hell to haven, as our brightly dressed protagonists become anomalous, animated individuals trying to survive a harsh and unnatural environment rather than its natural inhabitants. A stunning reflection of thematics and a credit one comes to expect of Yimou.

Telling its tale in a manner that feels deeply Shakespearean; a tragicomedy with sound resolution and some restoration at its end; A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop illustrates perfectly how a story is just the beginning of storytelling and how artistic direction and contextual content can transfer a well-known story into brand new territory. The two English language titles the film has been given demonstrate this with aplomb: just like the children’s game of Cluedo, there are few things you need to set up plot and intrigue: who, what and where. Furthermore, the story itself is simple; A Simple Noodle Story; for even if its particulars become convoluted it is the simple canvas upon which a cinematic artist can paint his/her masterpiece. And how beautifully Yimou does.

A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop is screening exclusively in Melbourne at the Cinema Nova.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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