1990, Starring Jacky Cheung Hak-yow, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Waise Lee Chi-hung,
Simon Yam Tat-wah, Fennie Yuen Kit-ying, Yolinda Yam
Directed by John Woo
No one who sees John Woo's most intense film, Bullet in the Head, can remain
neutral: you either love it or you hate it. This epic remains Woo's
personal favorite, the inspiration for which he drew from 1989's Tiananmen
Set in 1967, BITH tells the story of lifelong friends Paul (Waise Lee), Ben
(Tony Leung), and Frank (Jacky Cheung). The financially ambitious Paul suggest
that the trio go to war-torn Vietnam for quick-money opportunities. Ben,
who is initially hesitant about leaving, changes his mind after his wedding to
Jane (Fennie Yuen) is marred by a fight in which he and Frank take revenge
against a thug named Ringo. Ringo dies, and the trio decides to leave HK for Nam
until things cool off. Their associate, Mr. Shing, gives them a suitcase of
penicillin and Rolexes for a Mr. Leong, who runs the Bolero nightclub in Saigon.
Jane bids goodbye to Ben amid the chaos of the 1967 HK border riots.
Once in Saigon, the three receive their first look down the muzzle-end of
frontier capitalism when their taxi is blown up by a Vietcong bomber. Our
boys are put in an on-the-spot suspect lineup by the local authorities, tasting
pavement and fear. The real perp is discovered and summarily executed, so
they are free to go to the Bolero nightclub to meet Leong. The musketeers
meet their D'Artagnana in Luke (Simon Yam), a Eurasian hit man working for Leong.
In BITH's most exhilarating gunfight (a classic Woo-choreographed slugfest),
the trio joins forces with Luke to unseat Leong and free the drug-addicted torch
singer Sally (Yolinda Yam). Using pistols, submachine guns, shotguns,
knives, and explosive Havana cigars, they fight off Leong's minions, kneecap the
nightclub owner, and abscond with Sally-and a heavy crate of gold.
While Ben and Frank are most concerned with Sally's welfare-she took a round
during the firefight-Paul is obsessed with the gold, which becomes an albatross
around their necks. Arguments escalate and relationships fray until the
boys are pointing their guns at each other's heads. Sally dies of her
wound, and the trio is captured by the Vietcong, who find an envelope with
CIA-surveillance photos hidden among the gold leaves.
The film becomes extremely harrowing at this point, as the VC force Frank to
shoot his fellow prisoners in the head. When Frank becomes unhinged by the
horror, Ben takes over to spare his friend, machine-gunning the bound and
As in the deer hunter, the guns are turned on the VC, and the three escape
with the help of Luke and the U.S. Air Cavalry. Frank is seriously wounded
with a gunshot to his skull, in a sequence that must be seen rather than
described. Brutally intense, this film is not easily forgotten.
Credit: "Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head" by Stefan Hammond
& Mike Wilkins. This is a wonderful English guide to the films of Hong