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Bullet in the Head March 31, 2010

Posted by oldboy in : DVD/Video/T.V., Asian Cinema , trackback

One of the best movies I have ever seen. I think as a Hong Kong action movie it has never been eclipsed for it’s action and powerful themes of War and brotherhood throughout the movie. It was the first Hong Kong Movie I ever saw, a film that introduced me to the Directorial gunplay of John Woo and the magnificant acting talents of Tony Leung. It’s a film that at the time was shocking to watch. It’s a film that could never be made today without a heavy reliance on CGI and male popstars.

I first watched the movie in the early 90s during a late night showing in the early hours of the weekend on S4C (Channel 4 UK). It’s one of those movies you watch in the dark and by the time it’s ending light is starting to creep through your curtins.  In contrast to American action movies, “Lethal Wepaon” for example, the heroes don’t come out of the explosions and flying bullets unscaved. While the hero always wins in American action movies, the hero of Hong Kong films often don’t survive or are left deeply scarred by their experience, with John Woo’s Heroic Bloodshed movies of the 80s and 90s the characters go on a journy that will change them forever. As much as these movies are action they are more about the brotherhood and bond between characters, something America has seemed to miss in copying Woo’s movies by solely focusing on gunplay as the appeal of Woo as movies like “Shoot’em Up” (advertised as John Woo’s “wet dream”) have shown to completely miss the point of what a John Woo movie is. I guess this is largely why I became so attracted to Hong Kong Movies in the first place. After a diet of mainstream american action movies I was sideswiped by this, not for a moment expecting what that final outcome would be for the Protagonists. I love it when a movie can have that kind of impact on you, you aren’t expecting it yet you find yourself going on that journey with the characters and ending up somewhere that isn’t always comfortable but sticks with you long after the movie finishes. I believe this movie had a life course changing effect on me.

The story in a nutshell is about three best friends who grow up together in Hong Kong, their lives start to take a turning point during the riots of the 1960s. When they get themselves into trouble, they decide to head to Vietnam to avoid the autorities and make a small fortune selling goods on the black market. Instead it turns into a “out of the frying pan into the fire” situation as they are trust into the heart of the Vietnam War.
If this were simply just action then there is no concern as to what happens to these characters, the 3 main characters are friends who have grown up together, defend one another, they go to vietnam in search of savoiour but are thrown into a hell on earth, they surive gun battles together and overcome the odds for half the film, but when we see the friendship of this trio tear itself apart as they start pointing guns at one anoither, that’s when it really hits the fan. It’s almost heart wrenching to see them fall apart. Waise Lee has recieved criticism over his performance in the movie but part of the problem is the major shift in his character mid way through. He loses his mind with gold fever. For some his descent into madness happened too quick. At the time of viewing it didn’t bother me though. The gravity of the situation they found themselves in was a harsh one and the gold was his savour out of the whole mess he had gotten himself into.

The film wasn’t well recieved in Cinemas, particullarly because it was released soon after the protests in Tianmin square in 1989 which it takes a lot of imagery from but places it in a 1960s vietnam war setting. Woo was always inspired by “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” and this is definitly reflected in the movie along with classic Woo signature imagery of religious symbols since he himself grew up wanting to be aChristin Minister. He stills claims this movie to be his most personal work.

For years after seeing this movie I had tried to attain it on Video, buty upon requesting it at Stores I recieved only blank or very strange stares upon mentioning the title “Bullet in the Head”,  this was long before Hong Kong films were popular, there was no Matrix or Crouching Tiger hidden SDragon to captilise on. It wasn’t until 2004 that I was finally able to see the movie again thanks to the release on DVD by UK DVD company Hong Kong Legends.

The longest availbale version of this film today is 135 mins. But there was actually 3 Hours of footage in total which I earn to see. It might not ever happen, the footage could have already been destroyed or stored poorly somewhere which seems likely after according to Woo’s comment “The original version was 2 hours and 50 minutes, but the studio makes you cut it to 2 hours. When I came to America I tried to buy the film and put all the scenes back. I checked at the lab and at the studio, and all the extra scenes are gone. In the Hong Kong labs, they never keep the extra scenes. They throw them away like garbage. They make so many movies, they have no room to store this footage.”

But maybe one day on Blue Ray we can get a 3 Hour Bullet in the head Redux. Yes, I can dream. The thing is that there probably IS more footage out there. I for one remember a Russian roulette in the film when I first saw it on Channel 4 (S4C). Then when I got the HKL DVD of the movie there was no such scene on it and more so I couldn’t find any reference to it. Of all the famous deleted scenes the most talked about is the ‘piss drinking scene’ which can be found online and other DVDs of the film but never this Russian roulette scene which, from what I remember was a really heavy scene. Bey Logan does give a brief mention to it on the DVD commentary for the movie but there is no deleted material of it on the DVD itself. I have confirmed with other people that watched the movie on Channel 4 years ago that the scene does exist. Better still one of the people I spoke to online has a video recording of it which he plans to make some screen caps of later. When he does I’ll update this blog again with pictures.

Favorite Quote: “Today I saw a soldier kill a man and I learnt something. In this world, we can do anything if we have guns!” - Little Wing


1. Cal - March 31, 2010

I agree that BULLET IN THE HEAD is a great film, but with each viewing Waise Lee’s performance annoys more and more.

I seem to remember a Russian Roulette scene in the film too - which is obviously a reference to THE DEER HUNTER. I’m now really confused on this as I may be getting it mixed up in my mind with EASTERN CONDORS. I may have to have a look at my old VHS of this - which I’m sure was uncut.

2. oldboy - April 6, 2010

Thanks for your comment. If you find the scene let me know!

3. Joseph Kuby - April 21, 2010

I can’t wait to see screen captures of the Russian Roulette scene. Please keep us informed.

About the POW camp section of the film, I can remember reading an article by one of the American extras who claimed that he had a larger part (one with dialogue) than what was seen in the current version (he’s the soldier who tries to escape but gets shot).

I’m thinking that Sammo Hung must have ripped off John Woo* because Eastern Condors had a scene where Yuen Biao was forced to drink urine.

I think Waise Lee’s performance is underrated and, like what one online critic said, he didn’t deserve the mauling Bey Logan gave him in his audio commentary.

My only criticism of Waise is that he looked too old to be of the same generation as Tony and Jackie. So, in that regard, the other Tony would have been better.

Like what another critic said, I think the writing let him down as the transition isn’t as gradual and just comes off as abrupt (although this is probably down to editing since the original film was of mammoth length).

In fact, Wing appears to be nothing more than a plot necessity than an individual character. It would have been nice if there were scenes towards the beginning of the film which depicted him as being as close with Jackie as Jackie was with Tony.

Otherwise, I think Waise’s performance was very good (8/10) if not as great (9/10) as Jackie or excellent (10/10) as Tony. I certainly don’t think he was average (5/10) as John Woo says (I think - of all the main actors - Simon’s performance was the one that deserved to be called average by comparison).

Fennie Yuen’s performance was probably the one thespian that was truly average as she was just a pretty face.

The following video is a longer version of the alternate ending (which was the second ending):

The unsubtitled dialogue is something like this…

Wing: “How dare you find a random skull off the street of Vietnam and say it’s Fai!”

Bee: “You shot Fai, now I’ll shoot you! But since you’re my friend, I’ll fire a lethal shot!”


Waise said the film was originally over 3 hours long (I’m thinking such an epic story would be as long as the original versions of A Better Tomorrow 2 and Mission: Impossible II - three and a half hours).

In the commentary, Bey referred to two more deleted scenes…

1) When we first see Ah Lok (Luke) take out that greedy Vietnamese businessman in the men’s room, there were more bullets being fired into the latter’s body.

2) When Lok teaches the three young men how to deal with firearms (this also draws parallels to a similar scene featured in Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow III: Love & Death In Saigon).

Also, he says there was more footage of Ringo being hit head on the head repeatedly during the scene where Ah Bee and Ah Fai get revenge.

The original Hong Kong trailer shows the following deleted scenes…

1) A protestor, during the Vietnam protestation sequence, is being clubbed to death on the head by members of the Vietnamese troops (complete with blood squirts).

2) There’s a segment in the Bolero action sequence where Fai, armed with dual pistols, is shooting a long array of Vietnamese baddies who are standing in a corridor.

Prior to watching the film, I can remember reading a review of the HKL DVD that said the 125 minute version of the film is missing some of the music cues that can be found on the 136 minute version (the version of the film which was long rumoured to be the uncut version and which was shown in film festivals around the world).

The critic also complained that the music cues used instead are weak (it was either a case of some scenes being played with no music at all or certain scenes where weaker/cheaper music cues were used to replace the original ones).

A friend of mine had told me that he suspects the scene where all three friends are on a Hong Kong hilltop at night-time (after the Ringo fiasco) may have been longer.

If you look carefully, one of them looks at the other person like as if he’s about to say something. This makes sense when given what Bee says in the boardroom when he tells Wing about the promise he made to Fai about not leaving him behind in Vietnam (akin to what Mike said to Nick in Deer Hunter).

This type of near-missed dialogue can be spotted when Bee and Fai rescue Sally from her room, look at Bee’s lips it’s clear he was about to say something.

I’ve seen stills of Bee holding a pistol in the external (i.e. not in Bolero) areas of Vietnam, I don’t quite recollect seeing this particular image in the film. Another still I’ve seen depicts Bee with dual guns on the battlefield.

The photographs numbered 6, 11 and 12 from the following link are from deleted scenes:


I read a few reviews of the film (and several descriptions on eBay which look to have come from one of the HK DVDs) that Bee’s mother falls ill, goes to the hospital and Bee refuses to see her in her dying moments because he doesn’t look good.

Presumably his lowly appearance is due to his gang fighting. I suppose it was alluded to in the storyline that his mother made him a promise not to get involved in fights.

It’s also stated that they not only have to pay for the wedding bills but for the funeral ones as well (which might explain why Fai went to the loan shark as friends and relatives could only pay for the funeral).

The following photograph is an additional shot which comes after Frank gets shot:


The deleted scene where the three men are forced to drink urine:


Miscelleneous deleted shots:


Interesting trivia:

1) Chow Yun Fat was originally going to be playing Simon Yam’s role as he was really impressed with the script but John Woo had told him that his character was not the essential character of the story (though a pivotal one nonetheless).

Woo expressed concern that it might not have complimented his leading man status as it was really a supporting role (or more precisely - fourth leading role).

2) Tom Cruise claimed that this is his favourite John Woo film.

3) In order to get a stronger reaction out of Tony for the POW camp sequence (or more specifically the part where Fai is forced to execute American prisoners), Woo wanted tears and went to great lengths to get them.

First he got dressed up in an American soldier’s costume then he briefed one of his stunt guys to shoot him with an AK47 (loaded with blanks) when the camera started rolling. So that’s what happened - surely the last thing Leung was expecting.

Woo later on explained that even though the gun was shooting blanks, he was getting shot at close range and was in severe pain. His clothes were torn and he got burns on his body.

He ended up rolling around in a puddle in front of Leung. He did this for *seven* takes (the first being unusable because, instead of tears, Leung registered total shock and astonishment). Since Leung and Woo are close friends, the idea of Woo being gunned down in front of him was enough to elicit the sought-after tears.

4) The film’s production went way over time and money, costing Golden Princess (the film’s financial backer) lots of money. Whilst Jackie Chan’s Miracles was the most expensive film made in Hong Kong at the time, his film was still considered a very big hit in Hong Kong.

What’s funny is that these costly affairs didn’t stop these two action maestros from making Armour of God 2: Operation Condor and Hard Boiled.

5) During a Q & A session for the American Cinematheque (April 2002) at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood, Woo hinted that the original ending was the car chase ending and not the boardroom ending.

He said that the film was released in Hong Kong without the final car-chase scene. Woo put the car chase back in for the international release (including the Hong Kong DVD albeit excluding the VCD).

6) In the Q & A session, Woo mentioned a couple of scenes were direct “quotes” from the films of Scorsese and Peckinpah.

7) I read an article where John talks about his favourite films (from other filmmakers) and he mentioned the characters of Frank and Paul were based on his friends i.e. one friend became the leader of a triad gang while the other became a drug addict.

8) Simon Yam was satisfied working with John Woo on the film but he was disappointed because he didn’t get much publicity for the film. In the long run, at least his performance has been appreciated, it’s maybe his best.

Regardless of the lack of publicity on his behalf, Yam did have some good things to say about working with John Woo:

“Well, it was a pleasure of course. John Woo is a very good director, he doesn’t rush you. Too much in Hong Kong people are rushed. Movies are made very quickly, that is the way of Hong Kong life but John tells you to take your time.”

“He wants the best shot and he knows if you just do it for the sake of it, it won’t look good. So that is why I like him, he knows what he wants and doesn’t push you to get the shot done quickly.”

“At the time of shooting that movie, I was also making four other movies, so it was nice to go on the set and know I could take it a little bit easy!”

I like British director John Boorman’s description of Bullet In The Head:

“Over two hours of remorseless mayhem: balletic deaths, ingenious killings, delightful detonations, rivers of blood, acrobatic fights…an explosion of vast energy.”

It’s amazing to think of the influences which shaped Woo’s vision for the film:

Hamlet, Of Mice & Men, Who’s that Knocking on my Door?, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, Treasure of Sierra Madre, Taxi Driver, The Man Who Would Be King, Mean Streets, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Platoon and Blood Brothers.

* I noticed that the two films Woo and Sammo did in 1989 (The Killer and Pedicab Driver) share a similar tragic scene - two people who are in love, wounded on the ground, trying to reach out for each other but are unable to.

4. oldboy - April 22, 2010

Thanks for your comments and notes!
The screencaps are coming, it just won’t be for a while i’m afraid, could be a few months, but it will happen. The person I am in contact with is busy with a few other projects but he said he plans to do it in great detail when he does. He first has to transfer a VHS copy of the film recorded off TV and put that onto a DVD.

5. Cal - April 23, 2010

Thanks for that insight, Joseph. Fascinating stuff.

6. oldboy - December 7, 2010

Here’s the most recent update. Another few months off i’m afraid but i’m definitely gonna post word on this when it happens and I won’t forget about it. I’m excited to see it.

7. Joseph Kuby - December 27, 2010

Same here.

Apparetly, Bullet in the Head is going to be remade by some rapper (seriously).

8. oldboy - December 27, 2010

Bleh, no interest in seeing remakes. Hope it doesn’t go ahead.

9. Joseph Kuby - May 23, 2011

How’s the progress with the screen caps?

10. oldboy - May 31, 2011

Thanks for your continued interest, Joseph. I checked with the guy who has the tape and he said it’s going to take another while before he gets around to it. But I still believe he will do it.

11. Joseph Kubý - August 22, 2011

I’ve written a novel that’s referenced this film (in 4/42 chapters - it’s 333 pages long).

Hopefully, if my novel receives mainstream attention then so will this film (and Hong Kong films in general - of which 154 are referenced).

12. oldboy - August 23, 2011

That’s great news Joseph. Please keep me updated and let me know when it’s out. I’d like to read it as I’m love HK cinema.

13. Knut - October 4, 2011

This movie was shown on the (nordic) satellite channel TV1000 (along with the other John Woo movies, I believe it was ABT and HB), in the mid or late nineties. I remember this movie well because a friend of mine recorded it to VHS, I borrowed it from him and watched BITH quite a few times.

I recently watched the 126 minutes version available (with the alternate ending and John Woo retrospective as extras), and that version is definitely missing some scenes, like others have said here already.

I don’t recall any musical cues being different, the version I saw had the same song at the beginning, it used the same cheesy “Now I’m a believer” cover, and the score during the final scenes was the same. There could be other musical cues that I don’t remember that’s been changed, but I remember those being the same. The audio was the original one, not dubbed, and it had well made nordic subtitles.

I very clearly remember the piss drinking scene. It added greatly to the emotional impact, and it’s a shame they’ve cut it.

There was also a scene in the POW camp where they played russian roulette, I remember it being the most disturbing and harrowing part of the movie. I could be wrong, but I think that scene had a kid, or kids, being forced to pulled the trigger, or possibly kids being shot through the head. The details escape me, and I could mix up those scenes with the kid(s) from the Heroes Shed No Tears film by Woo which also features a lot of violence and POW camp type of things. What I do know is that the POW camp part of the film certainly has had one or more of the most powerful and violent scenes removed.

Fwiw the movie had the same “car-chase juxtaposed with bicycle riding” ending.

Since a major satellite channel would broadcast the movie with the scenes missing still in it back then, and pay to have subtitles made in several languages, I find it hard to believe that a release with decent picture quality isn’t around or available.

I’m not sure how much interest there is in it, but if my friend still has the VHS I could transfer it to digital.

14. oldboy - October 7, 2011

Knut, I and many others here would be very interested in that VHS with the missing scenes, especially the Russian Roulette scene as it’s one I haven’t been able to find as of yet.

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