Wednesday, June 15, 2011

John Woo's Bullet In The Head

Warning: This post will contain some strong language and spoilers, it will also be overlong and rambling, so I've included a somewhat shorter version below.

John Woo's epic Bullet in the head is fucking awesome and makes me cry. A lot. It's like Beaches but for men, with guns instead of Bette Midler!

Bullet in the head is John Woo's most personal and ambitious film of his entire career. Woo himself says the early part of the film is semi-autobiographical, and was filmed in Shek Kip Mei where Woo lived. The troubles and violence of the area greatly influenced Woo's filmmaking and none more so than in this movie.

The original idea for Bullet in the head was conceived as a prequel to A Better tomorrow. After that film had been such a success a sequel was needed but they had killed off Chow Yun Fat's Mark Gor character. The idea was put on the back burner as Tsui Hark pushed Woo into making A Better tomorrow II with Chow Yun Fat as Mark's brother Ken. He then made The Killer, which made his name on the international stage but the idea for Bullet never went away. Unfortunately Woo and Hark fell out during this period, resulting in Hark rushing out a prequel to the Better tomorrow films himself, using the still under contract Chow Yun Fat.

The original script for Bullet shared a number of similarities with A Better tomorrow III. Undeterred by this Woo carried on with a substantially altered script in which he poured his feelings and anger about the terrible events in Tiananmen Square. These feelings led directly to the incredibly intense masterpiece Woo delivered.

Incredible this scene was allowed to be in the film

Ben (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), Frank (Jacky Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee) are friends in 1967 Hong Kong. On Ben's wedding night he and Frank accidentally kill Ringo a local gang member in revenge for an attack on Frank. Running from the gangsters and police and looking to make money, they flee to Saigon with suitcases full of contraband for a local gang boss Mr Leong (lam Ching).

An early foreshadowing of the head trauma to come
Enjoying the brotherhood
On arrival in Saigon, they lose the contraband in a terrorist bomb explosion. At Mr Leong's club they meet Luke (Simon Yam) and find that Mr Leong is holding Sally (Yolinda Yan), a famous singer from Hong Kong, and using her as a prostitute for his clients. Ben promises to save her and the four men formulate a plan to take Leong down. Everything falls apart when during the plan Sally is shot and Paul steals a box of gold belonging to a corrupt Vietnamese army official who sends a unit of soldiers after them. During the ensuing battle Sally dies and the friends relationship's are strained to breaking point over the box of gold Paul refuses to give up.

Ben, Frank and Paul are captured by the Vietcong who suspect them of being spies as the box of gold also has CIA secrets inside, they are tortured before Ben tricks the Vietcong and they escape with the help of Luke and the Americans. During the escape however Frank saves Paul's life but is shot doing so. With Frank in terrible pain and with the Vietnamese all around Paul tries to stop Frank giving away their position, when he can't he shoots Frank in the head to shut him up.

Unfortunately Frank doesn't die from the wound and is left as little more than a drug fuelled animal who kills for the money for his drugs. Ben meets up with Luke who tells him what happened and they go to see what is left of Frank. Ben can't handle seeing Frank like this and shoots him to put him out of his misery. Returning to Hong Kong in 1974 as a refugee, Ben goes after Paul who has since become a powerful triad figure, fulfilling his dreams of being "somebody".

An early indication of the division to come
Perhaps feeling he needed to get away from modern urban Hong Kong to continue the exploration of his favourite themes of brotherhood, loyalty, honour and integrity John Woo made Bullet in the head. In keeping with his other movies, as well as dealing with these recurring themes, there is a complete lack of subtlety and an even stronger than usual feel of homo-eroticism.

Set in the late sixties when demonstrators were on the streets of Hong Kong protesting about British rule, and then moving to Thailand, standing in for Vietnam during the war raging at that time. Apart from the screenplay's origins, Woo perhaps felt this setting would give him even more excuse to break out the hardware and explosions than his crime and gangster films did.

The beginning of the film, despite the poverty and violence feels romanticised like many of Woo's movies do, in fact it feels like a homage to West side story, though this soon gives way to the true darkness at the film's heart. Like a roller coaster gently climbing before taking the plunge into it's ups and downs, once Bullet in the head rolls over the edge there are no more ups, the ride into the abyss begins and gets faster and faster all the way to hell.

A pivotal scene where bonds begins to break
The differing reactions highlight the split with Frank left in the middle
Bullet in the head makes me cry like a baby, I don't mean a few tears in my eyes, I'm talking about full on sobbing. The thing that makes it so compelling and emotional to me is the feeling the characters begin the film as real people, not gangsters, hitmen or cops but real young men with dreams and aspirations who are pushed to the absolute extremes to deal with painfully real (albeit amped up) emotions of both the good and bad kind. Much of the criticism the film has suffered comes from writers disputing this very point who say the characters are nothing more than one note caricatures. I disagree, Woo's cinematic short hand adds multiple layers to the characters of Ben and Frank in particular, added to this the performances of the actors breathes life into characters that on paper may look thin. Paul is another matter entirely. Woo has never really been all that interested in fleshing out the villains of his films, and the cartoon nature of Paul's corruption feels like Woo's comment on the shallow nature of his desperate need to get rich quick, which in turn is perhaps a comment on that side of Hong Kong's money mad culture. It could also be that some of his character was cut from the released versions due to time restraints, the different cuts will come up later on.

Could he be anymore suave?

The cast of Bullet in the head is excellent with the stand out performance coming from Tony Leung Chiu Wai. In this film Tony perfected what I call "The Face", whenever anything emotional is happening Tony pulls out "The Face". It appears more times in Bullet in the head than any other movie he has made. Tony Leung's career is built around it, and why not it's a powerful tool, "The Face".
Simon Yam is great as the debonair Luke, a role that you could imagine being written for Chow Yun Fat . Yam does a fantastic job, both dramatically and in the action scenes, I doubt if Chow could have done better.

"The Face"
"The Face" from the other side
Front on "The Face"
Both Leung and Yam always seem to get the acting plaudits for Bullet in the head, so I want to give some praise to the unsung heroes of the film, Waise Lee and in particular Jacky Cheung, both of whom at least in the west are heavily criticised for their performances. While not one of the greatest actors, Waise Lee is very good here, any shortcomings are the result of him being too old for the part to start with, he looks at least ten years older than his buddies. As I said before the character is cartoonish in nature, so the criticism Lee has suffered is unfortunate. Just look at the conviction when he says "All I want in this life is simple, just this box of gold, is that too much?"

The Woo stand off with more "The Face" from Tony Leung
"Is that too much?"
As for Jacky Cheung's Frank, I'm just going to come out and say it, it's one of the bravest performances I've ever seen. He started off as a pop star and like many others in Hong Kong branched out into acting. By the time he made Bullet in the head he had appeared in nearly thirty movies but none of them could have prepared him for this role. In a movie full of melodrama, he plays a character that could have potentially killed his career such are the hysterical extremes he is pushed too. I'm not saying Cheung is perfect, just that he deserves more praise than he is given for what is a wild and courageous performance. He was nominated for the best actor award at the 1991 Hong Kong film awards, losing out to Leslie Cheung for Days of being wild, so he was at least recognised at home!

The famous "Deer hunter" scene, this is much more powerful to me
Whether you call it melodrama or hyperreality, the most important aspect of the acting in all of Woo's best films and particularly this one is the sincerity of the performances provided. It's this aspect that I admire most and this combined with the heartbreaking events in the film make it the emotional powerhouse that it is.

The titular moment
Another contributing factor to how emotionally devastating the film is, is the score composed by James Wong and Romeo Diaz. It's a very simple, mournful score that compliments the movie perfectly, almost completely lacking bombast despite the events taking place on screen. Unfortunately unavailable to buy either on cd or as a download, and unlikely to ever be released, which is a shame as I think this is one of the best scores for any movie and much of the film's power is down to how fitting it is. The music featured in current releases is different to that featured in the original, hopefully any future releases will go back to the original music cues as featured on the vcd.

Of course John Woo is famous for his action scenes, and although plentiful in Bullet in the head they are a little different in flavour to the sequences in his other action extravaganzas, where the violence is shot in a more (cliche alert) "balletic style" and is more aesthetically pleasing. Here, while by no means realistic the scenes are much more grimy and more violent looking, keeping with the tone of the movie but still recognisably Woo through his trademark kineticism.

Yes it's "The Face" again
I mentioned the different cuts of the film earlier but I can't claim to know the exact details of all the different versions. The film's history is littered with bastardised versions in Hong Kong as well as worldwide due to the running time and censorship problems. John Woo's original cut of Bullet in the head was around 3 hours long, when it was premiered in Hong Kong the day before it was actually released it had been cut to 2 hours 35 minutes. It was decided this version was still too long, so all the prints of the film had to be re-edited and delivered back to the cinemas all over Hong Kong by the next day. One of the biggest cuts was "the car joust" ending between Ben and Paul, this was changed to "the boardroom ending" when the film was re-edited. Later on Woo's original choice of ending (the car joust) was reinstated to theatrical prints. Woo also created what would become known as "the festival print" which was the longest version of the movie seen since the original Hong Kong premiere, running 2 hours and 16 minutes and including the infamous piss drinking scene referenced in the original A Better tomorrow and showing how strong the movie is linked to that series. Most of the scenes from this version can now be seen branched into the Joy Sales ultimate edition dvd. The rest of the footage has been lost, thrown away as the Hong Kong film developers never stored anything that wasn't being used due to space constraints, so a full reconstruction would appear to be impossible.

The two endings are almost completely different, "the boardroom ending" being almost serene in it's calmness after the carnage of the previous two hours, whereas the "car joust ending" just extends the over the top apocalyptic mayhem before ultimately arriving at almost the same point. John Charles wrote in Video Watchdog magazine "If ever a film needed to end with a whimper rather than a bang it's this one." It's a great quote and I can see exactly where he was coming from. Personally though I like both endings, the car ending fits in with the rest of the movie's tone and kind of mirrors the bicycle sequence from the beginning of the film with Ben and Paul on the outside and this time Frank's skull in between them. It has an almost gothic feel to it and although ridiculous, it's really well put together. The boardroom scene is in complete contrast with the previous tone of the film but perhaps carries more emotional weight due to how it mirrors the scene of shooting Frank. However Paul gives up far too readily and no one else in the room moves to help which is a little odd. Overall I would say the ending in the boardroom would just shade it as far as my preferred version but I can take either.

The only way to see Bullet in the head with "the boardroom ending" as standard is the Mei Ah vcd release, this is also the only way to see the film with the original music cues. It also features footage not included in any other version with the exception of the festival print. Even like this though the presentation is far from perfect as the vcd is (badly) edited for violence, missing other scenes and suffers from terrible image quality. Taking all this into account though the vcd is still a valid option for watching the film and is quite highly prized amongst the film's fans.

It's well worth tracking this down if you don't have it
When embarking on this review I viewed the new Kam & Ronson blu ray and the vcd again, as well as checking certain sections of the HKL and Joy Sales dvds. The blu ray uses the same Fortune Star master used for the Joy Sales dvd release from a few years ago, I mentioned this release here. It is with great disappointment but not surprise that I say the blu ray is a huge let down. Not only does the image offer little in terms of an upgrade but everything wrong with the Joy Sales ultimate edition is still wrong here. I'm not going to be drawn into the is it/isn't it an upscale argument, but few scenes show any significant improvement in resolution over the dvd on my plasma tv. When projected on a 92" screen close ups and particularly night time scenes fare better, this could just be down to more space on the disc and better encoding. The colour balance is incorrect, being heavily biased towards red leaving skin tones decidedly pink and yet some strong reds look really pink, where others really pop. It's a very strange effect.

The look of the blu ray is not helped by the wide range of shots used in the edit. Woo himself along with David Wu edited the movie and Woo is known for shooting scenes from multiple cameras and angles, which could partially explain why some shots look so much better than others. The movie used four different D.O.P's which would make a consistent look difficult to achieve. I would have to say any improvement gained with the blu ray is negated by the colour balance issue, and for that reason I still prefer the Hong Kong legends dvd. This is obviously unacceptable for a blu ray release.

Not a good advert for the format!
The soundtrack is presented in a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix, this is the only Cantonese track available, so loses the mono mix found on the Joy Sales dvd. The sound mix is actually pretty good for a remix, it has the added foley effects, which while far from ideal are at least quite well intergrated as they don't suffer from differing sound levels to the original elements as they sometimes do (Iron monkey I'm looking at you). The blu ray is obviously missing the original music cues featured on the vcd release, as are all the dvd releases as well.

The English subtitles are a major flaw with this blu ray, supposedly they are corrected from the Joy Sales dvd. I checked a few passages and could see no difference and many of the errors are still there. The most unforgivable one being where Luke tells Ben that he "saw Frank shoot him in the head" when it should obviously be Paul. This has been an issue since at least the vcd release, if not before and it's unbelievably sloppy that it's still wrong now twenty years later and at such an important moment in the film. Again the HKL dvd is far superior in the subtitles department.

The only extras included are the deleted scenes and alternate ending carried over from the Joy Sales dvd. The deleted scenes can only be viewed as a stand alone reel with branching into the film not offered and it's the same with the alternate ending.

All in all the blu ray is a huge disappointment, if you have the Joy Sales dvd this is barely an improvement, if you want a better version then get the HKL instead. Maybe a better release will come from Europe, I won't hold my breath for it though!

Still the best way to see Bullet in the head
The more times I see Bullet in the head, the more powerful it becomes and the more my appreciation for it grows. I'm a strong believer in the theory, the more you are willing to put into a film the more you get out of it and I throw myself head first into Bullet in the head and it's a devastating experience because of that. I remember reading a quote some years ago about the film from a woman called Barbara Scharnes, she said "Total appreciation (of Bullet in the head) calls for a degree of emotional identification that may not come easily to most western viewers, especially male." I've always found this to be true. When showing the film to people who have liked Woo's other films, they just haven't been willing to give themselves to the film and without that, the lack of subtlety has been overpowering and exhausting resulting in their barriers being raised even higher. I wonder if the cuts to the film took out the more reflective moments of the movie, which had they been left in amongst the non stop barrage of rioting, bombings and gunfire, would maybe have lead to a more palatable film to a larger audience. I also can't help but wonder if the resulting film would have been diluted by this or perhaps made even more devastating, unfortunately I doubt we will ever know for sure.


Wes Moynihan said...

A powerhouse review Mart, I had little idea of the backstory behind the film, so the next time I re-visit the film it will have a new edge. Excellent stuff...

I gotta ask though - what's the infamous piss drinking scene ?

A hero never dies said...

Thanks Wes I like the powerhouse comment, I have to say you were right about writing about your favourite films. I found this really difficult but I'm pleased with the result in the end. The piss drinking can be seen here it may make you a little queasy though!

I really do love this film and I hope that shone through!

Anonymous said...

It's always hard for me to square the image of Jacky Cheung here and and his later role as the popular canto-pop singer singing sweet gentlemanly songs. I guess it goes to show Jacky is actually a decent actor as well as singer.

A hero never dies said...

Anon, Yes his behaviour here is hardly fitting of a Heavenly King!

YTSL said...

Hi A... --

Great review! Really heartfelt as well as thoughtful.

"The more times I see Bullet in the head, the more powerful it becomes and the more my appreciation for it grows..."

So... how many times have you seen this movie? :b

A hero never dies said...


Thank you for your wonderful comments, as for your question I would say at least 15 times but probably approaching 20. I guess that would make me a masochist?

A. said...

I've been looking forward to this one!

Bullet in the Head is probably Woo's most personal film and it's such a shame that a film made relatively recently is so chopped up, cut up, and lost. It's a good film to show off Woo's talent to someone who thinks of him only for his action scenes.

As for the acting in the film, I'm actually pretty good with Jacky Cheung as an actor as he's in several good films and never rubbed me the wrong way. I don't recall seeing Waise Lee outside of the Better Tomorrow films and this so I can't comment. How is he in The Big Heat?

As for the derivativeness of The Deer Hunter, I'm not terribly bothered. People never claim that The Killer is ripping off Le Samourai but people harp on this scene for some reason. I usually sum it up to myself that people still talk about and name-drop John Woo still to this day. No one really talks about Michael Cimino so much unless it's in direct relation to The Deer Hunter.

Also, you have a 90" tv??

A hero never dies said...

A. you're right it really is such a shame the film wasn't looked after better at the time and now it's too late! Waise Lee is solid in The Big heat without needing to be anymore, have you seen Johnnie To's Running out of time, he's in that too.

The Deer hunter comparisons are just western critics being lazy with the film as far as I'm concerned. I think people mention Cimino more now in relation to the disaster of Heaven's gate than anything else.

I don't have a 90" tv, A friend of mine has a projector set up.

Phantom of Pulp said...

The French DVD sports a decent print, but the3 missing music cues bring tears of horror to my eyes. This applies to all other releases of my film on DVD and BR.

As you noted, and I noted in a blog post long ago, the HK VCD is of interest. For mine, it's the only version with all the original music cues. Unfortunately, it lacks the piss drinking sequence and it cut for violence (Simon Yam's dagger embedding itself in a throat, for example).

When all's said and done, I prefer the office ending. The car joust, for me, is one action scene too many, so has little impact.

Very thorough discussion of the flick, easily Woo's finest.

A hero never dies said...

Thanks Phantom, I did look at getting hold of the French DVD, their treatment of HK movies is often the best (have a look at my Mission, Blade and Longest nite comparisons) but from the info I could find it didn't seem to offer much improvement. I would love for a definitive release to happen but I just can't see it ever happening.

Phantom of Pulp said...

I'm with you -- I don't see it happening, either. Such a shame that Woo's best is the most problematic in terms of available print elements. Apparently, Sammo's PEDICAB DRIVER has similar issues. The one DVD available is dreadful. The laserdisk isn't too shabby.

NH said...

Excellent review to what I consider one of my personal favorites!

"Paul's corruption feels like Woo's comment on the shallow nature of his desperate need to get rich quick, which in turn is perhaps a comment on that side of Hong Kong's money mad culture."

You're on to something here. After all, Terence Chang noted in several interviews his shock at realizing that Hong Kong audiences considered Waise Lee's character the true hero of the film. Simply because he, in a way, winds up being the winner that takes it all.

One note about the VCD: There is also a Megastar/Media Asia VCD which is the same as the Mei Ah VCD and also includes the alternate ending. One of the things I find most interesting about the VCD-version is how you can easily detect where stuff was cut, due to jump cuts in music cues, a soundtrack that lags for about a second after each cut (sometimes revealing bits of lost dialogue) and easily discernible splice marks.

I'm still on the lookout for the Deltamac VCD/DVD. The cover itself is interesting enough, as the synopsis appears to have been written way before BITH was cut up for commercial release, referring to plot points not to be found in the film itself.

A hero never dies said...

Many thanks NH for your comments.

I didn't know the Megastar vcd was the same as the Mei Ah release, the Megastar dvd was (along with the Ocean Shores Chungking Express) the first dvd I actually bought in HK.

Is this what you are referring to re. the Deltamac release?

"In Hong Kong, in the sixties, life was simple and poor. there were also riots. Bee, Wings and Frank were very good friends and grew up together in the resettlement area. They had known each other since they were children. One day, Bee's mother felt ill and was taken to hospital. Injured, Bee did not dare to see Jane with her last breath All the people then worked very hard to raise money for the funeral expenses as well as marriage fees. During Bee and Jane's marriage party, Frank was carrying the money from Frank and hurt him. Later, Frank returned to the party and pretended that nothing had happened, but Bee realised that something was wrong. When the three, originally with high hope and illegal goods arrived at Vietnam, they witness an assasination by the Viet Cong in the downtown area. All their illegal goods and prospects were lost. They were therefore aware that they had gone into a dangerous war zone. The three decided to find Luke who was a professional Killer in Vietnam to ask for help. Bee then met Sally, little known singer from Hong Kong. She was also Luke's lover, Luke suggested a plan to plunder gold from god father Y.S. Leung. Wings immediately agreed, showing his desire to get rich before returning to Hong Kong...." I was going to try and track this release down myself after reading what you said, but Yesasia have actually saved me some money for a change!

NH said...

Yep, that's the one I was referring to. Unfortunately, both the Deltamac-DVD and VCD have been out of print for almost ten years now.

That synopsis appears to suffer from some pretty bad gaps itself. One of the sentences in there that don't make any sense: "Injured, Bee did not dare to see Jane with her last breath" Ben doesn't dare to visit his mother at the hospital, when he does, her last wish is for him to marry Jane. There is a still photo of Tony Leung's face in bandages after Ringo burned his face with acid. Have you seen that one?

I just recently got my hands on a promo booklet (the second picture from the top) aimed at foreign distributors. The synopsis given in that booklet accurately represents the actual content of the film as it was released, but it states some things more explicitly that the film in its finished form merely hints at. You were 100% spot-on in your analysis of Paul's character, he is described as having "an inferiority complex and therefor decides to become rich as soon as possible, no matter what the cost". The ending is described as the main characters' last desperate attempt to rid themselves of their past. Unfortunately, the booklet doesn't contain any behind the scenes or technical information.

It's kind of sad nobody had the foresight to simply chop up BITH in two 80-90 minute halves and releasing it as two films.

A hero never dies said...

NH, Agreed, that synopsis could easily make my HKMS series it's that poor. It really is a tragedy we'll never get to see the film as Woo intended.

Would it be possible for you to scan the booklet for me? I've never seen anything like that for the film. Thank you for commenting again!

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