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Bullet in the Head (HK 1990)

Director : John Woo
Writer : Janet Chun/Patrick Leung
Cast : Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Jacky Cheung, Waise Lee, Simon Yam, Yolinda Yam and Fennie Yuen

In 1967, on the way to the wedding of a friend a young man is accosted by a local gang member. Later, the three friends administer justice, in the process of which the gang member is killed, so they leave Hong Kong to avoid the police and the gang. They run black market supplies to Saigon and get embroiled in the war, being arrested as Viet Cong, then later captured by the Viet Cong, and find that their friendship is tested to the limits as they try to escape.

by Edward Tang

There are some films that I will always remember, because what kind of impact they had on me. “Bullet in the Head” falls into this category, a simple tale that turns into a plethora of destruction and death. This film is certainly a turn around for John Woo, who had been doing heroic bloodshed films up to this point, but this film might be his most emotional so far. Woo adds the horrors of war into the parallel of friendship, which can make you either turn your head or smile.

I have seen many films in my life, but I must say that I was still shaking after this film ended, it didn’t feel like a film, it felt like an experience. At least Mr. Woo decided not to make this the Better Tomorrow prequel, because all and all, this film was ten times better. A flop at the box office and never really mentioned outside of Woo’s Hard Boiled or Killer, I didn’t really have many expectations. But in watching this film, it drains you of your life, it has so many visual beauties, what greed can do,and how war is very much hell. This film gives off an emotion of complete and utter anguish, and still it has some classic gunplay thrown in as well.

The film begins amongst riots and the three friends of Ben (Ah Bee), Frank (Ah Fai) and Paul (Ah Wing). All basically are true friends, saying that whatever happens to one of them, happens to all of them. A little backstory is shown on their families, Paul’s especially shows that he doesn’t want to live his life like his father who was a sweeper his entire life. Ben proposes to his girlfriend and everything seems like a seed just waiting to grow, the anticipation of the next actions so to speak. On the night of the wedding, Frank gets himself hassled by a few goons headed up by Ringo. Ringo wants Frank’s money, but Frank doesn’t want to give it up. So Ringo hits Frank in the head with a bottle and takes it from him. Caught in the moment, Frank gets his strength and takes the money back and runs off. During this, Ben and Paul celebrate at the wedding, and when Frank finally shows up, Ben knows something is up, noticing Frank’s odd behavior.

Later that night, Frank is kicked out of his house and is thrown to the street. Ben seeing this, questions how Frank hit his head. He finally admits that Ringo hit him with a bottle, which pisses Ben off. Ben and Frank make a rash decision as they head over to Ringo’s pad to pay him back for the tussle earlier. They take it too far, as they accidently kill Ringo. Frantic and wanted for murder, they agree to take a bag of goods to a gangster named Leong, who owns a nightclub in Vietnam. Ben is confused, he just married and now he is wanted for murder. He finds his wife in the middle of a riot, and tells her the news. They part, not before saying goodbye, maybe for the last time.

Once they arrive in Vietnam, they witness an assassination attempt and are rounded up as possible suspects. The leader interrogates them until they spot the one who killed the officer. Without any emotion, and almost in front of kids, the officers execute the man. Trying to get away from such things, the three men lost the goods they were to deliver. Still wanting to make it big, they go into the nightclub anyway, and run into Sally Yen, a singer from Hong Kong. Sally was sold to the nightclub and has since become a druggie and a hooker. During this, they meet up with Luke, a former CIA agent, whom they agree to work with. With plans to get a nice little score and to free Sally from her chains, they attempt to break out her passport, so she can go back to Hong Kong.

The four men and Sally retrieve her passport and a bucket of gold. Paul becomes completely attached to the gold instantly, as he is willing to kill everything in his way for it. Almost escaping the nightclub, Sally is grabbed and shot in the chest. Barely escaping, the men make it out barely alive and try to pass through without getting any attention from the Viet Cong. After making their way to a beach, waiting for a boat to take them to safety, they are attacked once again by the advancing troops. After taking care of them with one hell of an explosion, Sally breathed her last breath. She floats out to sea and the boys say a tearful goodbye.

Frank and Ben become puzzled by Paul’s addiction suddenly to this gold, and Ben can’t take it anymore. He begins to throw the gold into the ocean, but then has a gun pointed to his head. Ben can’t believe that Paul would rather have the gold than a friendship. They settle their differences for now, but the troops have spotted them again. After a rocket launcher takes out their boat, they are forced to find land. Luke goes and destroys everyone in sight, and the others try to help Paul with his gold to the shore. After spliting up from Luke, the three friends are captured and taken to a prison camp.

The next day, the VC find a wad of paper, that hold CIA advances and locations. Questioning the friends leads to nothing, as the soldiers begin a cruel game. Taking Frank, they give him a gun and force him to kill the GIs prisoned there. Frank, in the middle of a nervous breakdown, gives in and kills the man with Ben helping him along the way. Paul can’t take it anymore and “admits” to them that he is CIA. Through all of this, Luke has found the camp and brought help. Ben himself cracks and offers to kill some of the prisoners, and does with a smile on his face. But as he is offered to kill Frank, he shoots the guard behind him as they grab the guns and take out the remaining guards and take one of them hostage.

After storming the camp, Paul gets his gold back and takes out anyone in his way. Paul begins to run off into the distance as two soldiers spot him. Frank sees this as well, so he pushes Paul out of the way and takes a bullet in the side. Desperate not to be spotted, Paul covers Frank’s head with his jacket, so nobody can hear his screams. Paul silences Frank with a bullet to the back of his head. Paul escapes off into the distance, as Luke who witnessed this entire act can’t track him down. Ben goes looking for Paul and finds him, as he is taking out random Vietnamese after stealing a boat. Ben takes one in the gut and falls to the floor as Paul makes off with the gold smiling.

Ben wakes up after being healed by monks. He finds Luke, and Luke tells him of Frank’s fate. He is now basically a vegetable, how he kills for money to buy heroin and how he isn’t himself. Ben sees Frank himself, and is completely shocked to see how Frank just isn’t himself anymore. Ben puts Frank out of his misery with a bullet to the chest. After parting with Luke, he makes his way back to Hong Kong to settle this matter with Paul. He meets his wife again, and meets his son for the first time who is apply named Frank. After seeing this, he knew what he had to do. He storms the now wealthy mob boss Paul’s room and shows him the skull of Frank. He questions Paul’s motives that day, and is completely surprised on his attitude. After Ben leaves, Paul gets into his Caddy and tries to drive off but Ben is there, and kills Paul’s guards. In a daring car chase both men destroy each other with bullets, until only Ben is left standing.

The film’s story is very good, I liked it because it incorporated a fairly easy tale in the background of Vietnam. Everything in Vietnam looked authentic, down to the clothes and cars. The mood is very bleak, it starts out very happy feely, but when it comes down to the finale, everything is emotional and harsh. Everyone in the beginning seems pretty happy with everything. As the conflict grows, the character’s true feelings and moral come under conflict with their friendship. Woo’s editing job made the first half of the film very sketchy, but all and all the film did well after the first fifteen minutes or so.

Acting is superb and truly shows the butter than can be made if the casting is done correctly. Tong Leung Chiu Wai (Ben) always has a good performance, where it was from an undercover cop in Infernal Affairs or a private eye in the stinker Tokyo Raiders, he always has a good presence and it worth seeing. He brings the chops to this role, as a guy who witnesses hell, from his friends turning into different people, and having to survive everythin thrown in his way. Jacky Cheung (Frank) overacts his way into this film, but still gives a good performance as the character who probably experiences the most of the tradgety afoot. I must say that his emotions during the prison camp scene in particular gave that scene even a more demonic face than it had before. Waise Lee (Paul) is pretty good, I didn’t see much of anything from his character, other than a good psychotic performance, but it just didn’t stand out. I have to give something to Simon Yam, he is always hit or miss, and this is
definiately a hit for sure. His character is a soft spoken hitman with a good heart who has seen more than he needs too.

Yes and there are action sequences in this film, probably the two most notable are the nightclub scene and the prison camp. The nightclub scene is great, showing them grabbing the guns and taking out everything in sight. The classic duel pistol mode and exploding cigars are the highlights. This scene almost makes Simon Yam look completely badass, just kicking everything out of the way and taking control of the situation. The direction is good for the most part, it was presented in a good way, but almost nilistic, in just some of these scenes just are plain nasty and make me turn my head. Not that they aren’t overly violent, but just the way they are represented. The ending was very entertaining, a car chase that just destroyed the crap out of these cars, and bullets flying everywhere. Ben and Paul really destroy the crap out of each other, and hey you get to see Waise Lee have a case of the overracting bug up the ass, as he shoots Frank’s skull. Pretty good stuff.

On a final note, there are many versions of this film out there, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on a VCD that included the UNCUT version. This version includes the famous piss drinking scene (mentioned in A Better Tomorrow) and the original ending for the film. I won’t spoil it because I think you should see it for yourself. But I’ll comment that the original ending seemed to fit more with this film (I liked the car chase ending as well). I don’t know, it felt like in the nature of this one was a bit more cartoonish if anything, where as the original ended the film as it should, to the point and deadly.

What is there to be said about Bullet in the Head? This film is easily one of my favorite films, and sucks you in, and trust me, you’ll still be thinking about it when the credits role. Oh yeah if John Woo ever reads this, I’ll forgive him for Paycheck now.

Plot : 4/5
Acting : 5/5
Entertainment : 4/5
Overall : 5/5

Notable Scenes
- The beginning riot scenes
- the club shootout
- the Vietcong prison execution scene
- and the finale car chase

Buy this movie at YesAsia – Bullet in the Head

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