December 19th, 2009
Or perhaps that should be Three Shots. I certainly think Three Shots would be a better English title than the official one. Still, I guess the official English title contains a reference to the films inspiration.
I was standing on the corner of that big, fancy mall on the northwest corner of the Shuangjing intersection waiting for my wife to finish sifting through overpriced clothes so we could go watch the film. I knew which of the buildings around me were old and which new- indeed, I remember when the spot I was standing on was a fancyarse lawn scarred with pathways leading into the sales office for the complex which was then little more than a hole in the ground. But somehow all the buildings looked the same age, as if the norwester had finally put the upstart new buildings in their place. It seems we have a habit of going to the cinema on blustery, dry, cold December days to see the latest blockbuster. Indeed, last time we’d gone to the cinema was almost exactly a year ago (indeed, we’re ony 3 days short), and the coldest December day in Beijing since 1951. That day we saw Feng Xiaogang’s 《非诚勿扰》. This time, when lzh emerged from the clothes shop, we wandered up to… oh, no “Wait, we’ve still got time, let’s go check out those discounted shoes first, you need new sandals for when we go to New Zealand”. grrrr. And it wasn’t any kind of shoes we bought, but a new pair of thick longjohns for me, me having discovered unfortunately late yesterday afternoon (when I really needed to be getting out of barbeque-reeking clothes and making myself respectable as presentable as possible) that the top half of my other set of thick longjohns was MIA. And then back to the cinema to see Zhang Yimou’s latest film, 《三枪拍案惊奇》/A Simple Noodle Story.
I have a love/hate/like/why can’t he get back to realising his full talent? relationship with Lao Zhang. I love his early work. I hate his martial arts epics. 《千里走单骑》/Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles was good, but not as good as his early films. 《三枪》 I don’t yet know how to rate.
I suppose I should note that the version we saw at UME Shuangjing was Mandarin soundtrack (obviously) with Chinese subtitles. Those whose Chinese is not up to following a film entirely in Chinese should either look for a cinema showing it with English subtitles or a DVD with more subtitling options than the cinema allows.
First impression was that the volume knobs on UME Shuangjing’s amplifiers must have a Number 11, because the three shots that bring the opening credits to a close really were one louder. Or to put it slightly more directly: If those three shots hit you with such force that you wonder if somebody hasn’t just put three bullets in your forehead, then perhaps somebody should turn the volume down just a tad. lzh spent most of the film with fingers firmly planted in ears, and yet didn’t miss a line.
Based on what I’d seen on TV, I went in expecting some form of comedy, probably of the rather silly kind, some Lao Zhang’ed cinematic errenzhuan [that is perhaps the worst wikipedia stub I’ve ever seen, but at least it gives you a brief description], perhaps. I also did not have high hopes from the film, having heard that it wasn’t all that good. Second impression was that the expectation the TV promotional stuff had given me was right, but the comedy was good. I certainly would never have expected to see 饼 (Chinese pancake type thing) given the same treatment as one of those errenzhuan kerchiefs and spun around till it became a pizza base so huge it’d have the Kro’s Nest pizza chef putting three shots into his own head for shame. It was a lot of fun to watch, but at the same time not a total surprise considering that 3 of the 4 actors playing the noodle restaurant staff (Xiao Shenyang, Mao Mao, Cheng Ye, with Yan Ni the only exception) came up through Zhao Benshan’s errenzhuan circle.
Third impression was that this was most certainly a Zhang Yimou film. Only Lao Zhang could possibly make a desert look so incredibly lush.
There’s also something incredibly discordant about this film. It’s set somewhere way out in Northwest China along the Silk Road, but most of the actors spend most of the film in costumes more appropriate for an errenzhuan stage in Liaoning. Was a time when Lao Zhang was making Northwestern films with distinctly Northwestern vibes, but if you closed your eyes and listened only to the dialogue, you’d think this one was set somewhere on the black earth of the Northeast. Anachronisms litter the script like drug dealers on the streets of Sanlitun of a weekend evening. And I couldn’t help but feel those anachronisms hid a lot of knitting needle jabs at modern Chinese society.
Before too long, a certain darkness crept into the film. It acquired an undertone and atmospherics so black you’d swear it was filmed by a Kiwi. Lao Zhang’s lusciously filmed desert turned all gothic, with ever-passing stormclouds looming, threatening. Sun Honglei’s soldier turned into a psychopath who did everything possible to empty the noodle restaurant boss’ safe. Yan Ni’s 老板娘/Boss’ Wife was so keen to buy the Persian Merchant’s gun because she had suffered ten years of horrific abuse at the hands of the Boss (Ni Dahong). And the Boss is quite a piece of work: Abusive, with a penchant for cutting the fat baby’s face out of New Year paintings and forcing his wife to put her face in the hole as he quietly, calmly tells her off, then slams burning tobacco into the small of her back. Self-centred, manipulative, and tighter than a Scotsman’s arse. While the errenzhuan actors seem to spend most of the film on the errenzhuan level of comedy, Yan Ni’s Boss’ Wife takes a wild, bipolar ride between brave face, slapstick comedy, and Greek tragedy, with Xiao Shenyang’s Li Si desperately trying to figure out what’s going on and how he’s supposed to respond to it all. But can this 娘们唧唧的/Big Girl’s Blouse man up and John Wayne their way out of this mess?
All three shots in the gun sold by the Persian Merchant are put to very good use, with the second being sidesplittingly, laundryman’s-going-to-be-busy hillarious. But I’ll say no more than that the Boss’ Wife gets what she needs, but at a cost of Shakespearian proportion.
Beware, within this beautifully-filmed, light-hearted comedy are hidden a myriad of ragged shards of glass. But it’s a great film. Watch it.
Oh, and for the “Some People Are Just Too Damn Talented For Their Own Good” file: Xiao Shenyang sings the song that animates the final credits (the first of his songs which is not a pisstake of other singers?), a song in which all the dead bodies come back to life and join in the dance. It isn’t just that Xiao Shenyang can act errenzhuan and more widespread forms of drama, and sing and dance (uh… errenzhuan), but Sun Honglei also turns out to be a pretty decent dancer.