Bullet in the Head
Manadrin title: Diexue Jietou (Blood-splattered Streets)
Golden Princess/John Woo Film Prodction Ltd., 1990, 118 min. (original cut ran 126 min.)
Winner of the 1991 Hong Kong Film Award for Best Editing
Director: John Woo
Stars: Tony Leung Chiu Wai ("Ben"), Jacky Cheung ("Frank"), Waise Lee ("Paul"), Simon Yam ("Luke"), John Woo (cameo as a cop)
Producers: John Woo and Terence Chang
Original story: John Woo
Screenplay: John Woo, Patrick Leung and Janet Chun
Cinematography: Wong Wing-Hang, Lam Kwok Wa, Chan Pui Kai and Somchai Kittikun
Editor: John Woo
Available on video (letterboxed and subtitled) from Tai Seng
Available on VCD from Universe -- a review can be found here
Check out a clip from Bullet in the Head (1.1 MB .mov file)
(Thanks to Tai Seng for the clip)
"Once the best of friends... now the worst of enemies!"
In 1967, three life-long friends' (Ben, Frank and Paul) lives are thrown into turmoil. Ben is getting married, and to pay for the wedding, Frank borrows money from a local loanshark. On his way to the wedding, Frank is attacked by a gang; he manages to escape, and later, when Ben and Frank seek revenge on the gang, they accidentally kill a man.
Knowing they must flee (to avoid both the law and the loanshark), the friends use Paul's underworld connections to arrange a "trip" to war-torn Vietnam to deliver various goods to a local crime boss. However, upon their arrival, they lose the contraband and are now trapped in the foreign country. Enlisting the aid of a suave gangster named Luke, they decide to rob the boss (and rescue a beautiful singer). However, their plan backfires and they are eventually captured by the Vietcong.
Now, their friendship is put to the ultimate test as they must fight for their lives...
This is one of Woo's lesser-known works (at least to Western viewers), but it's definetly one of his best films. Woo wanted to get away a bit from the cliches (dual guns, slow motion) that had become mainstays in HK cinema, so he chose this story, which is based on part on his childhood growing up in the slums of Hong Kong. While there is a boatload of action (particularly during a daring escape feom a P.O.W. camp), the emphasis here is on the interaction between the characters. This might have failed with lesser actors, but Tony Leung and (suprisingly, given his past body of work) Jacky Cheung give this film a firm foothold that carries it above similar movies.
While parts of the movie (particularly the almost-notorious "piss drinking" scene) may be difficult for some viewers and some parts border on melodrama, this is simply not just one of Woo's finest movies, it's one of the best HK movies ever, period.
- The original cut of BITH ran 126 minutes, but Golden Princess thought the film ran too long and wanted it cut. For some European countries, the film was cut down even further to around 96 minutes. For descriptions of the scenes that were cut, check out A Website Never Dies. Most notably, the infamous "piss drinking" shot (which Mark descibed in A Better Tomorrow) was cut.
- Woo originally wanted to do BITH as a prequel to A Better Tomorrow, but producer Tsui Hark shot down the idea twice before eventually doing the prequel himself.
- After the breakup with his partnership with Tsui Hark, Woo was having trouble finding backing for his films; stories have circulated that Tsui (one of the most powerful men in Hong Kong cinema) said Woo was hard to work with and this led to a virtual blacklisting of Woo. At any rate, Woo financed almost all of the cost of BITH out of his own pocket.
- The basic plot and structure have drawn comparisons to Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter.
- The opening sequence (street brawling intercut with titles, with classic rock playing) is similar to the opening of Martin Scorsese's first film Who's That Knocking at My Door?
- Like Woo's previous film, The Killer, BITH did not do well in Hong Kong because audiences didn't like the allusions to the Tienamen Square massacre during the riot scenes. Woo was deeply touched by the massacre and felt bad that he touched such a raw nerve in people, but at the same time he felt the Chinese people should react and not hide from it. He said this about the reaction the movie got in City on Fire (© 2000 Verso Books): "The premiere of Bullet in the Head was a catastrophe; people were walking in and out. I heard some people saying 'Why do companies give money for sh*tty films?' The movie did very badly and all my movie industry friends turned their backs on me. Only three people stood by me while the film dearest to my heart flopped...Terence Chang said 'It's a good film.'...one of the studio heads said 'We're going to lose money, but it's the best movie you've ever made"...and my good friend Chow Yun-Fat. Still, I lost many friends after that, which is another reason I left Hong Kong. Now Bullet is highly regarded internationally by critics and fans."
- During the filming of some of the riot sequences, things got so chaotic on the set that Woo panicked and ran into several shots. One time, he actually ran into an explosion, which caused large cuts on his head.
- Woo based much of the film (the first act in particular) on his own experiences growing up in the slums of Hong Kong: "Our family was so poor [we] had to go to the back of restaurants for leftovers to keep from starving. The place I lived had no trees, no blue skies, no sunshine. There were buildings everywhere. It always rained...when I stepped out the front door into the alley, the junkies would be injecting themselves with heroin...when you turned around there would be people gambling. Beating each other up for ten cents...every time I walked through an alley, I assumed I was going to be beaten up. Grwoing up in that environment I saw only a cruel and depressed world. I was in hell too long. I tried to work out the ugliness of that world in Bullet..it was an intense experience, but very rewarding for me" [from City on Fire].
- BITH originally ended with Ben killing Frank in a boardroom, but after test audiences reacted badly, Woo added the "car joust" finale. The boardroom sequence can only be found on the VCD version; I have put up some pictures of the scene here, or you can see it here.
- Woo says this about the film: "I didn't want to make a Vietnam War movie to cater to the American and European market. In fact there are a lot of messages that I want to get across with this film, most notably to use Vietnam to make a point about the present and future of Hong Kong. All those beautiful things we once had in the 1960s and are now lost, I want them back" [from Hong Kong Film Biweekly].
- Woo thought all the performances in the film were good, except for Waise Lee, who Woo felt put in only an "average" performance.
- Simon Yam was actually burnt in the face during the POW camp sequence.
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