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Zhang, Carpenter return to screens — with mixed effect

by Giovanni Fazio

You know that sinking feeling you get when you’re in some trendy upscale shop and suddenly the in-house BGM features some absolutely crap Euro-house remix of one of your most cherished pop songs? Well, that’s exactly the feeling you’ll get watching director Zhang Yimou’s latest, “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop,” which is a remake of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut, “Blood Simple”.

“Blood Simple” was a tight, suspenseful small-town noir, with great performances from a then-unknown Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh, precisely hardboiled dialogue and a cool, brutal logic to its escalation of events. Zhang’s remake is something like an unfunny chop-socky Three Stooges version of the material.

Like the original, Zhang’s film focuses on an unfaithful wife, her jealous husband and the investigator he hires to murder his wife and her lover. Yet the original film’s strength was the believability of its Texas watering-hole location and its scheming characters who all think themselves cleverer than the viewer does. Zhang’s version moves the action to a remote desert noodle shop in 18th-century China; as usual for a Zhang film, the cinematography and set design are a riot of bold colors, but the director pumps everything else up into cartoonish proportions as well, with disastrous results.

Ni Dahong and Yan Ni as the cuckolded husband and fiery wife are decent enough, but Xiao Shenyang as the wife’s lover is just a disaster — his pink-clad, midriff-baring, simpering, trembling waiter is played as an obnoxious, last-century caricature of queeny homosexuality, which is bad enough; worse is that you will make it to the credits with no idea of how exactly this dude’s supposed to be the wife’s bedmate.

Much of the flavor of the original lay in Walsh’s performance as the cowboy-hatted detective, particularly in the gap between his good-ol’-boy drawl and the ice-cold menace that lay behind it; this is mostly lost in Sun Honglei’s stone-faced, nearly wordless interpretation of the role. Topping it all off, Zhang takes the Coens’ most terrifying scene and turns it into a cheap laugh. It’s hard indeed to believe that this is the same director who debuted with “Red Sorghum” (1987), an excellent film about infidelity and its deadly consequences that had so much more in common with the Coens.

Another once-hot director fallen on hard times is John Carpenter; a hit-maker in the 1970s and ’80s (“Halloween”, “The Fog”, “Escape From New York”), he hasn’t been glimpsed since 2001′s rather lame “Ghosts of Mars.” His latest, “The Ward,” seeks to be a straight-up fright flick, and is moderately successful as such.

With its bevy of babes incarcerated in a creepy all-female mental hospital, this is basically Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” without the lingerie and giant samurai. Kristen (Amber Heard) is a disoriented abuse victim hospitalized against her will; she insists to her doctor (Jared Harris) that she’s sane, and schemes up ways to escape. Her efforts take on an added urgency when she realizes the ward is stalked by a malicious black-cloaked figure, which may or may not be a supernatural being.

Like Snyder’s film, Carpenter sets “The Ward” back in the ’60s, where barbaric treatments such as electroshock therapy and lobotomies add a frisson of torture-chamber danger to the proceedings. (Although the film mostly avoids the graphic and gratuitous sadism of “Saw” and its ilk.)

Filming in an actual (decommissioned) mental hospital in Washington State, Carpenter makes the most of letting the camera prowl up and down its dimly lit corridors, and the location’s maze of locked doors, elevators and basement chambers serve the escape-attempt scenes well.

The director does make the error of revealing his bogeyman too soon, though, and it’s not nearly scary enough to stand up to scrutiny. The bigger question of whether the ghost is real or a product of the drugs Kristen’s being fed is kept alive till the last reel, at which point “The Ward” does deliver a decent final plot twist of the “everything you know is wrong” variety that is so very much in favor lately. We’re about due for a ban on directors stealing the final scene from “Carrie” though.