Bright Lights Film Journal

“In Northwest China, You’re on Your Own”: A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop

Cora: Yeah, but where are we headed?
Frank: What’s the difference? Anywhere.

–The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946

The key to the shifty enterprise of adapting a work like the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) to another culture is simple: take us there. Short story artist Ray Bradbury has noted that placing readers into a strange world is what makes fantasy work – if the language can paint it in the mind’s eye, then all we have to do is look. Hence, narrative forms – even the loopy variety, like the Coens’ – may move through history, as the western did for Akira Kurosawa in The Seven Samurai (1954), or – genre reflexivity getting loopy on itself – as his revisionary western set in feudal Japan returned to America as the Magnificent Seven (1960).

Zhang Yimou’s film – now released in the states as A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop – despite its attention to time and place, celebrates its revisionary genre approach. It’s title recalls Godard’s adage, that all a good film needs is “a girl and a gun” (his way of reforming the gangster mythos) – and hence all Zhang needed was to bring in the noodle shop. This film’s northwest China locale of the past, now in place of the seedy Texas bar in the Coens’ film, is occupied by discontents, though it gets a grand treatment: when the armor-clad police approaches, having just heard the illegal action of a cannon going off, the employees whip up a batch of noodles from scratch in a virtuoso display of appetizing acrobatics. The dough whipping in circles through various hands likely reflects the vertiginous plot that Zhang has inherited.

The cannon-fire happens at the hands of a wild-eyed Persian merchant, who arrives to the shop peddling weapons. The wife of shop owner Wang (Yan Ni), the Frances McDormand figure in Blood Simple, sure wants the gun to dispose of her indolent husband – regularly abusive and so odious that he makes his wife pose in the cutout of a baby, since she has yet to grant him a son. The source film, of course, is James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (novel, 1934; the Tay Garnett film, 1946) turned inside out. While in Postman the husband’s murder is successful, the Coens and Noodle Shop leave him not quite dead at the hands of the spiteful hitman he hired to kill his wife and her lover. Hence comes a dark comedy of (t)errors among the hitman (here Zhang, a chilling police detective played by Sun Honglei), the husband, and then the boyfriend and wife.

While the narrative is reflective to an American form – the film’s final image shows the metaphysical connection to the Coens’ debut – Zhang makes the style his own. The wife’s lover is over-excitable, dressed in bright colors and unable to quiet himself when surely needed. A buck-toothed shop employee at first appears to be throwaway comic relief, until he becomes integral to the plot when he gets snared by the hitman’s actions. The Coens’ Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) is cold blooded, but to see the new hitman’s method of silent murder will unveil the real noirish heart of darkness. Zhang also realizes his visuals as if choosing to forget those of his predecessor. His style makes neo-noir new.

James M. Cain – and the Coens’ – resurface in historic China.