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.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
March 22, 2010
Despite its clear homage to slapstick silent film and the likes of Jacques Tati, Rumba (2008) is most strikingly an exercise in colour theory. Careful and detailed art direction focussing on wardrobe, framing and set design are used to heighten the contrast between the film’s alternate tonal directions: fortune and misfortune.
The plot is at once simple and convoluted; perfect for its simplicity, not in spite of it. Fiona and Dom are school teachers whose lives are somewhat banal and ordinary by day, but whose vibrancy and verve emerges en force when they rumba by night. Having entered and won a dance competition, the couple are temporarily on top of the world, but a case of wrong place, wrong time instantly and irreversibly changes the course of their lives.
Despite their newest ailments – Fiona is missing a leg and Dom his memory – the pair muddle on as best they can, determined to make the good a bad situation. In true slapstick style, even the smallest of mishaps sets in motion a sequence of cause and effect lunacy paralleled only by the likes of Buster Keaton and his contemporaries. The hint of pantomime is well matched to the quirky sensibility specific to French farce, which is naturally and seamlessly brought into the mix.
Immediately after the incident there is a turn in the film’s visual style marked by a stand out sequence whereby Fiona’s beautiful, bold red rumba dress literally unravels, revealing a stark, drained colour palette of neutral tones; white underwear and sallow skin. From this moment on what ensues is a series of images drained and faded from the saturated reds, blues, yellows and greens that came before.
Gradually, as events resolve themselves, the pair rediscover and rekindle their love in accordance with a slow and strong re-saturation of colours onscreen. No sooner have the pair reunited, the plot resolved itself, and another dance sequence ensues; prime colours coming together in a kaleidoscopic rainbow of promise and joy.
The wit is very dry and occasionally errs on the side of acerbic to great comedic effect. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon are unfalteringly straight-faced throughout the most absurd happenings which is a credit to their abilities not just as actors, but as writer/directors in equal measure. Well observed and well measured in every way Rumba is careful not to lose its audience and the film runs at a short but sweet seventy-seven minutes.
Not a film that will change your life, Rumba is like a perfect pudding or a holiday fling; the sensation of indulging in a guilty pleasure left to linger at the level of flirtation. Light hearted and removed from any sense of false sentimentality, Rumba is a vibrant interlude of visual entertainment.
Rumba is available on DVD from March 22nd through Network Releasing. Special features include deleted scenes, bloopers, trailer, Rumba: step by step and a Q&A with Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon at the ICA.