29 November 2011
BULLET IN THE HEAD - (Dir. John Woo, 1990, Hong Kong)
John Woo is an innovator. With his Hong Kong action films of the 80s and 90s, Woo helped to transform the style in which action sequences were shot. Although the explicit, if not celebratory, references to the world of Peckinpah, Leone and Melville plugged us right into the cerebral strata of postmodern cinema, Woo’s sensibilities occupied, dare I say it, a realm of existential melodrama that echoed the eternal heartbeat of his nocturnal Hong Kong city-scapes. It was somewhat inevitable Woo would be tempted by Hollywood and his time in La-la land produced a disparate body of work that paled into creative insignificance when compared to the measure of striking visual aesthetics he had cultivated in Hong Kong. It is not difficult to pin point why such a creative void existed between Hollywood and Hong Kong – it was all to do with budget in my opinion. In any country, in any context and in any time, directors work better and much more creatively when working with limited resources. Subsequently, innovation becomes a necessity rather than just an accessory. The only exception of Woo’s Hollywood work is claimed to be Face-Off, which may possibly stand up as a film that is of equal quality to his Hong Kong output. It is somewhat reassuring that Woo has returned to his roots and with Red Cliff, he certainly demonstrated that he has lost none of his operatic signature moves including slow motion ballet. The other striking aspect of Woo’s Hong Kong actions films including Hard Boiled, The Killer and Bullet in the Head is the level of emotional involvement with the characters. Woo trained as an assistant under the populist commercial director Chang Cheh who was a key figure in the Shaw Bros film studio. Cheh developed what became known as the ‘heroic bloodshed’ film that incorporated the Wuxia tradition with a heightened emphasis on violence and masculinity. Woo expanded upon Cheh’s work, helping to refine the heroic bloodshed film and with Bullet in the Head, described by David Bordwell as Woo’s ‘most anguished work’, familiar themes to do with friendship, loyalty and violence merged with the real politics of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Bullet in the Head was one of the first films Woo directed after his split with producer Tsui Hark and the project was difficult to finance given the script’s bleakness. Woo ended up financing the film himself but the gamble didn’t pay off as the film was a commercial failure at the box office. Nevertheless, Bullet in the Head is one of Woo’s richest films. The central storyline of three close friends, Ben/Ah Bee (Tony Leung), Frank/Fai (Jacky Cheung) and Paul/Little Wing (Waise Lee), growing up in a 1960s Hong Kong only to leave for Vietnam and become embroiled in a world of guns, gold and violence recalls most extensively the narrative trajectory of The Deer Hunter, in which war traumatises friendship and causes the loss of identity. What distinguish Woo’s film from the Hollywood lexicon are themes of individual capitalist greed and social mobility intrinsic to Hong Kong in the consumer driven 1980s. In many ways, the box of gold that becomes a central motivating element of the narrative recalls the study of greed in Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre. The cast also impresses and it would be almost impossible to get Tony Leung and Simon Yam in the same film today, given their popularity as two of South Asia’s biggest film stars. The title of the film refers to the bullet that becomes lodged in the head of Frank when he is shot and betrayed by his friend Paul. Paul becomes consumed by greed and during their time in Vietnam, he jeopardises the lives of those around him so he can achieve his goal of social mobility and achieve an exalted place in a new Hong Kong capitalist society. The film’s tone gets much darker in the second half of the film. In one of the most ‘anguished’ moments, Ben confronts Paul over his betrayal by bringing the skull of their dead friend Frank into the boardroom. The image of the skull is iconographic of the horror genre and is transformed into a metonym of corporate greed that finds certain validity in today’s ethically bankrupt society. What Woo demonstrates with the action genre conventions is the capacity to move beyond ideological limitations and merge the personal with the political.