Bullet in the Head Review

Michael Sunda has reviewed Hong Kong Legends’ release of John Woo’s epic tale of three friends caught up in the Vietnam War. With over 5 hours of extras spread over 2 discs, this is most definitely a DVD worth getting.

Releases by Hong Kong Legends are few and far between at the moment, so with the arrival of the companies’ seventh ‘Platinum Edition’ disc, which holds not only an excellent film by one of the finest directors to ever grace Hong Kong cinema, John Woo, but also over 5 hours of extras, it’s like Christmas come early. HKL’s last Platinum Edition DVD, Iron Monkey had a rather disappointing transfer, which was actually inferior to the previous single-disc release, so with this, they are undoubtedly aiming to regain peoples’ confidence, and prove just why they have so many fans.

The Film

Originally planned to be the prequel to A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head is understandably similar to, but far superior to the actual prequel – Love and Death in Saigon, the third in the trilogy. It contains all the elements that you would expect from a Woo film: stunning bullet ballet gunplay, a heroic but thoughtful protagonist, ‘weak’ and passive female characters, cheap music, an underlying theme of brotherhood, and of course plenty of good ol’ melodrama. However, there is a notable difference between this film, and say The Killer, or Hard Boiled: the gunplay is as spectacular, but less romanticised and so suits the bleak setting, and also the lead character isn’t an all-out action hero (although one of the supporting characters might be considered so).

Tony Leung, before his rise to fame, plays Ah Bee, a young man living in Hong Kong in the late ‘60s. The opening scenes introduce us to both him, and his two close friends, Ah Wing and Ah Fai, played by Waise Lee and Jackie Cheung respectively. Positively dripping with sentimentality, we see the three friends racing each other on their bikes and having fun whilst the camera cuts to shots of riots taking place elsewhere in the city.

After we see Ah Bee proposing to his girlfriend, it immediately cuts to their wedding night. The three friends, all coming from poor backgrounds, are having trouble paying for the wedding banquet, so Fai borrows money off Uncle Kwai. As he is returning to the wedding, he is approached by a fairly large gang, who try and take his money. Despite receiving several blows, including a glass bottle to the head, Fai manages to regain the money and return to the wedding, trying to conceal the blood and avoid fainting. At first he simply shrugs Ah Bee off, telling him that he fell into a ditch, but later admits he was beaten up by the gang. Enraged at what had happened to his friend, Ah Bee leaves the wedding celebrations with Fai to take revenge. In his anger, Ah Bee goes too far and accidentally kills the gang’s leader. He knows they now have to go into hiding, which leads nicely into them leaving Hong Kong to go to Vietnam, after a tip from a friend that you can make the most money from countries that are in chaos. He gives them a name of a businessman to contact in Saigon, and several briefcases full of herbs, Rolex watches, and other contraband to take to him.

Practically as soon as they arrive there, they get held up in a riot, which seems to be much more violent than the ones shown in Hong Kong. Instead of police officers launching tear gas, there are soldiers brandishing M16s, who are more than willing to use them. Moving along slowly in their car, they suddenly see a Vietnamese man on a motorbike, driving in their direction, with what looks to be a bomb next to him. The army spots him, and shoots him multiple times, yet the momentum carries the bike forward towards them. Exiting their car in a hurry, they are forced to leave the items they were smuggling, and jump to safety. Sure enough, the bike hits the car and explodes, destroying the items that they were going to use to get money. Now they have no car, and no way of obtaining money. Not that they have much time to feel sorry for themselves though, as another person with a bomb appears, this time only a teenager, who tries to blow up the car with the general of the army in it, but fails. The soldiers force all the people, including Ah Bee and his friends, onto the ground in a line, and demand to know who they are and where they live. All of them are scared, especially Fai, but the soldiers recognise the teenager, and the friends see the soldiers shoot him mercilessly in the head from point-blank range. This is their first real experience of the horrors of the Vietnam War, and as such, the beginning of their loss of innocence.

The friends survive the experience, and make their way to the businessman they were meant to meet. They also meet Ah Lok, played by versatile actor and veteran on Hong Kong Cinema, Simon Yam, who helps them to obtain guns, and then assists them in stealing a box full of gold pieces from the corrupt businessman. From here on there is no ‘straightforward’ plot. Instead, the film follows the friends as they try and return to Hong Kong with the gold, as they become involved in the events of the War, their friendship is tested, as is their sanity. Most of the sub-plots are very interesting and effective, although I felt that Yolinda Yam as a singer was an unnecessary addition to the film. Not even serving as a love interest, it seemed that she was only along because Woo felt it was necessary to have a female character in there, but as in all of his Hong Kong films, the female character is stereotypically weak and relies on the male characters to save her.

There are some very disturbing scenes, which are easily as realistic and uncompromising as those in other films about the war, such as Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. Thankfully the BBFC passed it fully uncut, as the scenes are vital for establishing the environment, and situation of the characters. Each one of the characters is affected by the end, either physically or mentally, which seems very fitting considering the events we have just been shown. And so it is a great disappointment that the ending almost ruins the entire film. Abandoning the gritty realism and relentless bleakness, Woo decides to end the film with a car chase and shoot out – a grand finale that fits The Killer, A Better Tomorrow 2, and many of his other films, but looks completely out of place in this one. An alternate ending, which is considerably superior, is present on the extras disc, which I will describe in detail in the relevant section of this review.

The acting, as might be expected, is superb. Tony Leung on a bad day would still be able to express more through his eyes than the majority of actors could do with the whole of their bodies, so considering this is one of his best performances, it’s truly memorable. He appears strong when the situation calls for it, genuinely sad in several scenes, and maintains a sense of vulnerability throughout despite gradually losing his innocence along with his friends. Canto-Pop star Jackie Cheung is also excellent, pulling off a huge change in character like Dean Shek in A Better Tomorrow 2. Unfortunately Waise Lee’s performance isn’t as admirable, as he descends into generic ‘evil villain’ complete with over the top laughing, although to be fair it is likely that he is just doing what he is told, as Woo does seem to like his 2-dimensional, generic antagonists, that feature in almost all of his films. Also worth mentioning is Simon Yam in his supporting role as Ah Lok – he keeps an air of mystery around his character and launches himself into the action scenes with great energy and poise. One of the most memorable moments of the film is an exchange between him and Ah Bee, despite neither character saying a single word.

There are other parallels to the A Better Tomorrow films as well as the ones already mentioned in the review. For instance few will forget Chow Yun-Fat’s anger at having a gun held to his head, only in Bullet in the Head, it is Tony Leung at gun point. And instead of Ti Lung drinking urine on his friend’s behalf, it is Jackie Cheung downing an entire bottle of wine.

One criticism I have is that the opening half hour or so is very badly edited, and makes a simple storyline convoluted and hard to follow. Strangely, once the action on screen becomes more chaotic, the editing is much better, and the film more coherent.

Overall, this is a superb, uncompromising depiction of the Vietnam War that is rightly considered one of Woo’s best films. Tony Leung delivers the performance that set him off becoming one of the most famous actors in Hong Kong cinema, and is complimented by the supporting actors’ admirable performances. At times it’s not easy to watch, but it is by all means essential viewing.

The Disc

Video:

Thankfully, the transfer is practically first-class. Websites have been accused of not being critical enough towards Hong Kong Legends’ DVDs, but with presentation like this it really is quite difficult to find anything to complain about.

Considering the notoriously bad storage conditions of Hong Kong films, it’s great to see that there is effectively no print damage evident. Detail levels are high throughout, even during nighttime scenes (which admittedly don’t stay dark for long with all the explosions going off everywhere). Colours look natural, and saturation and contrast levels are perfectly fine. There is a fair amount of grain, and noise in the background, which seems to be evident with all of Woo’s films released around then, but is still quite excessive at times.

Sound:

We are given the options of a Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track, as well as a dubbed English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Dialogue is clear, explosions are loud, gunfire is full of punch, and the background music is balanced well. The tracks seem to be mainly focused around the front speakers, but this isn’t much of a problem, as the action scenes don’t suffer at all, and dialogue is expected at the front anyway.

There are English subtitles, Dutch subtitles, and subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing which mark out sound effects, for example “[distant explosions]”. The translation flows well and there are very few typos – the only one I spotted was “yu” instead of “you”.

There’s also a feature length commentary by Bey “Did I Mention I Wrote The Medallion?” Logan, which I will cover in the extras section. Interestingly, he now has a 6-page biography that you can access from the audio set-up menu, which lists his credentials as screenwriter, producer, and actor.

Extras:

Hong Kong Legends Platinum Editions DVDs… bliss for consumers, but a daunting task for reviewers. With over 5 hours of extras, I have spent the majority of this (thankfully rainy) day categorically checking out each and every extra feature, ultimately so I can tell you what you probably already know – that this is simply an incredibly impressive disc.

On the first disc there is the main feature, and a commentary by Bey Logan. It’s quite a long movie, but he more than copes. Even before the opening credits start, he has explained the Cantonese title and it’s meaning (“Bloodshed in the Streets”), and the flow of information doesn’t cease once. It’s clear that he enjoys the film, and that enthusiasm definitely helps to make it interesting. He explains the influences, such as the homage to Westside Story in the introduction, where the scenes are shot (varies between Hong Kong and Thailand), how much the sequences cost (the epic sequence of the fall of Saigon towards the end with the tanks and explosions served no narrative purpose but cost the most), and plenty of other interesting pieces of information. It’s not entirely limited to factual information regarding Bullet in the Head: Bey discusses his views on Naked Killer, and gives his opinions on how he would end the film, as he also thinks the ending is ineffective. He even gives us a little history lesson on the CIA’s input in the War, and the “domino effect” regarding the spread of Communism.

The second disc holds the bulk of the extras, splitting them up into the sections:
The Players, The Artists, The Archive and Information Library. A much more efficient and practical layout than themed menus, such as the extras menu in the Project A Platinum Edition DVD.

Starting with The Players section, the first extra it contains is Baptism of Fire: An Interview with Jackie Cheung (14’28”). He plays up to the camera but for the most part this is the least interesting actor interview of the three. Jackie mentions that Woo placed him dangerously near one of the explosions, just like Woo sped up the explosions in the end of Hard Boiled without telling Chow Yun-Fat. Sounds like a dangerous director to work with, and Jackie certainly agrees that he’s “crazy” (although definitely in a good way…). As with the other two interviews, shots of the film are interspersed with the actor talking about his role, filming, and other related matters.

The second interview is Paradise Lost: An Interview With Waise Lee (14’00”). The most interesting of the three interviews, it helps that Waise speaks in Cantonese and there are subtitles, so he is not hampered by his knowledge of English, like Jackie Cheung was slightly in his interview. Waise talks about the politics regarding the period of the film, and also describes how he, Jackie, and Tony all stayed in Thailand for over a month during filming, and so spent lots of time having fun together. This certainly helps explain the natural chemistry between the three. He also has quite a few funny anecdotes regarding filming, for example Woo would ignore him on set because he wanted Waise’s character to be pessimistic.

The final of the three interviews in this section is Biting the Bullet: An Interview with Simon Yam (16’56”). Unfortunately Bey Logan introduces the interview, and tries a little too hard to be funny, but thankfully you won’t be cringing for long as Simon Yam joins him after a minute or so. As Yam’s such a huge fan of Woo, the first few minutes are just him praising the director, but it soon gets more interesting. As Bey mentioned in the commentary, Yam loves children and pays for the education of 10 children in Bangkok, although Yam says that he pays for 12. Either way, it’s nice knowing that so many famous Hong Kong actors contribute so much to charity. He starts to repeat himself towards the end, but that’s just down to his slightly limited English vocabulary, and the bulk of the interview in the middle is very interesting.

Onto the next section… The Artists contains another 3 interviews, this time with those involved in the making of the film rather than the actors. The first is Tempting Fate: An Interview with Patrick Leung (19’31”). The co-writer and co-producer talks about several issues of filming, including the casting, and how they chose the (at that time) relatively unknown actors from previous performances, such as Jackie Cheung in Wong Kar Wai’s As Tears Go By. He then moves on to talking about the locations, and then an interesting segment about the injuries. The large number of extras meant that occasionally one of them would wander into the wrong spot, for example the spot where there was about to be an explosion.

The second interview is the appropriately titled A Walk on the Wild Side: An Interview with Lau Chi-Ho (14’28”). The action choreographer certainly has plenty of scenes that he could discuss, but he never really goes into enough detail to make the interview as satisfying as it could be. He does describe how Simon Yam got slightly injured in a stunt but just laughed it off, but again it would have been better if he had expanded on this a bit more. His descriptions of Woo’s (who seems to be the subject of most of these interviews) attitude is quite entertaining, saying at one point how Waise was in tears as his hand had been so badly burnt by the AK-47 he was firing, yet he still got told off by the director.

The final interview in this section is Natural Selection: An Interview with David Wu (32’30”). This interview with the film’s editor is really quite substantial – running in at over half an hour it’s definitely one of the highlights of the disc. Again there is a fair amount of talking about the director, which is slightly irritating as it’d be more interesting if those being interviewed talked more about themselves than the director. Thankfully in this longer interview, Wu talks about his own background, as well as plenty of assorted information about filming.

The third section is The Archive, and starts off with several trailers. For Bullet in the Head there is the Original Theatrical Trailer (3’56”) and the UK Promotional Trailer (2’02”). Then there are the Original Theatrical Trailers for two other Woo titles – Once A Thief and The Killer, which run at 1’50” and 4’58” respectively. Speaking of trailers, there is a selection of information and trailers for other titles in Hong Kong Legends’ catalogue on the first disc, under “Further Attractions”.

Next up is an Alternative Ending. Without spoiling anything, I can say that this is a far superior ending to the one included in the feature, and it is a pity that they were not able to find a high enough quality version of this ending to enable re-inserting it into the feature. It fits the tone of the film much better, and is much more believable.

Then, under “A John Woo Retrospective”, we have the choice of two mini-documentaries: Life Through A Lens: A Retrospective With John Woo (13’00”) and Reflections On Bullet in the Head With Bey Logan (4’52”). The first of the two had the potential to be an indispensable extra, considering how John Woo does not give too many interviews, but unfortunately it falls a little short. His English is not that fluent, and the way the interview room resembles an interrogation room, with bright lights pointed directly at him, doesn’t exactly help put him at ease. Moreover, the cameraman is constantly circling him, and visibly puts him off what he is trying to say. It is still interesting though; Woo is very modest but talks about the directors he admires (such as Lean, Peckinpah, and Scorsese), his influences and inspirations, his friendship with Chow Yun-Fat, and his aspirations for the future. Like I said, it’s still an interesting interview, but I can’t help but feel it could have been so much better if they had just conducted it in a more relaxed atmosphere, like how they did with the actors’ interviews. The second feature with Bey Logan is effectively an extremely condensed version of his commentary, but shows him actually visiting the locations where they filmed while he talks about it. It gets very clichéd towards the end (“…there are no winners in war, just survivors), but other than that Bey does a good job, and it’s interesting seeing how the locations have changed in the 15 or so years since filming.

Finally, the last section is the Information Library. As its name suggests, this is where the text-based extras are held, and it includes Bullet in the Head Film Notes (12 pages) which is well presented, and just about as good as you can hope from text only. Then there are biographies of John Woo, and the four main actors, with each biography going over 10 pages…

…and that’s it, the end of the extras!

Brian from Hong Kong Legends wrote on the company’s website that this was, “…the most difficult DVD I have made in the last five years”. It shows – the film itself is excellent, it is presented immaculately, the extras are extensive and all interesting, and importantly, it shows in the DVD that there has been lots of effort put into it. A brilliant set for a brilliant movie, what more could you want?

Michael Sunda

Updated: Jul 09, 2004


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