Black Comedy on the Dunes 

Zhang Yimou Meets the Coen Brothers

A WOMAN, A GUN, AND A NOODLE SHOP Behold, the cruel laughter of the cosmos!

A WOMAN, A GUN, AND A NOODLE SHOP Behold, the cruel laughter of the cosmos!

ZHANG YIMOU entered world cinema in the early '90s with a slow film, Raise the Red Lantern. The critics at that time saw in Lantern (which also brought to the consciousness of world cinema one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, Gong Li) a Chinese seriousness that stood in opposition to Hong Kong's action spectacles. Zhang represented the serious art of somber communism; John Woo represented the hypermindlessness of capitalist Hong Kong. In 2002, Zhang went to the other side and made an action film, Hero, that starred Hong Kong's A-list: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen. He not only went to the other side, he did it (swords clashing, flying kicks, slo-mo twirling and bending over backward) better than those on the other side do it. Hero is one of the most gorgeous action films ever made—thanks to the camera work of Christopher Doyle, himself a product of Hong Kong's reaction to the shallowness of its profit-driven film industry.

With A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, Zhang leaves the domain of action films and enters black comedy. The relatively short—95 minutes—movie is based on the Coen brothers' neo-noir Blood Simple and is set on the edge of a fantastic desert. Nothing could be further from reality than this region of pinkish, yellowish, reddish dunes, fast-moving clouds, scorching suns, and bright moons that rise and flood the dark dunes and the lone noodle shop with haunting light. Much of the film's story unfolds in the living quarters of the noodle shop, which is connected to the world of law and order by a dirt road. A young woman suffers in this noodle shop. Her husband is old and sadistic. He regularly burns her flesh with his pipe. He is a miser. He refuses to pay owed wages and stashes his piles of money in a dungeon beneath the noodle shop. Everyone hates his guts.

One day, a corrupt cop informs the miser of an affair his wife is having with an employee. The miser offers the cop money to kill his wife and her lover. The cop accepts the money, but he instead kills the miser and attempts to frame the wife and her lover for the murder. With each twist and turn in the plot, the movie goes deeper and deeper into comedy until the entire film is splendidly black—this is the nothingness of the night when "all cows are black," and we hear all around us the cruel laughter of the cosmos. Noodle Shop is not Zhang's best work, but it's certainly worth the trip to the movie house.

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