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Why John Woo’s ‘Bullet in The Head’ is The Best Movie You’ve Never Seen

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies

It was a brisk fifty-five degrees in the Pocono Mountains on Thursday, September 14th in the Year of Our Lord 2023. I had neglected a sweater, nervous and preoccupied as I was, but it didn’t matter. No low pressure system or mountain chill could brittle my reserve or divert me from my chosen purpose, because on this night John Woo’s best film was playing on the best movie screen from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine (or Portland, Oregon for that matter).

This was finally the night Bullet in the Head played at the Mahoning Valley Drive-In.

Now I realize words of that size are not typed lightly, but let’s continue and see if I can sell you on a few facts of life, here.

First of all, The Mahoning Valley Drive-In is a film lover’s paradise. A revival drive-in that specializes in 35mm prints expertly curated by film aficionados ranging from low-budget splatter to The Wizard of Oz, supported by a great concession stand and friendly, knowledgeable, staff the place is more than a gold mine– it’s a God-send.

Where else in the Tri-State area can you browse three generations of physical media for sale while chowing down on a fresh hamburger and listening to the on site radio station play 80’s Cantonese Pop in celebration of the Hong Kong classic you’re about to watch?

In an ocean of focus-tested homogeneity it is an island of particularity. It is beholden to no master but good films, shown on film, with the respect and enthusiasm they deserve. If you’re in Eastern PA, New Jersey, or New York and you’ve never made the trip I urge you to go. It is one of the few real cathedrals to movies left in America, and I feel grateful every time I arrive at the gates.

In addition to their regular schedule of weekend events, the Mahoning hosts weekly Tuesday screenings featuring prints from the collection of Exhumed Films. Exhumed Films is one of the largest repositories of 35mm prints of cinema of all genres in the world and provides screenings throughout the Philadelphia area.

Since COVID they’ve been doing single engagements during the week at Mahoning and each year they’ve featured at least one John Woo Hong Kong classic: because of them I’ve gotten to see The Killer and Hard Boiled live and this year brings the privilege of John Woo’s very best film and the real subject of this essay: Bullet in the Head.

Bullet in the Head came in the midst of an incredible run of action classics from John Woo in Hong Kong in the late 80’s and early 90’s. A Better Tomorrow and its sequel, Just Heroes, and The Killer had all released within two years and all of them had received considerable international acclaim.

Producer/Director Tsui Hark, who owned the studio Media Asia that Woo had been producing films for, had always had a contentious relationship with Woo, and after The Killer underperformed at the HK box office their relationship became untenable and Bullet in the Head, which was at this point still being conceptualized as A Better Tomorrow 3, would have to be self-financed by Woo who had effectively been blackballed by Hark to any major HK producer.

Hark would rush to get A Better Tomorrow 3 into theaters before Bullet in the Head to avoid audience confusion (and stick it to his former employee, no doubt) and while that film did beat Bullet to the Head to the box office it was Woo who would have the last laugh– A Better Tomorrow 3 is a lifeless film, and Bullet in the Head is the crown jewel of the Hong Kong New Wave, one of the best films the colony ever produced. Working as his own producer, Woo fine crafted an ambitious, powerful, political tragedy of innocence lost and lives destroyed set across the backdrop of political turmoil throughout Southeast Asia.

Bullet in the Head is set in Hong Kong, in 1967, and follows three street kids: Ben (the incredible Tony Leung), Frank (Canto-Pop legend Jacky Cheung), and Paul (Woo regular Waise Lee) who live amidst anti-colonial riots and more apolitical street gangs and dream of making it big and getting out of the slums. When Ben marries his girlfriend Jane, Frank borrows money and is savagely beaten by a local gang lord for it. Ben abandons his girlfriend to get revenge for his friend and in the process, kills the gang leader.

As staying in Hong Kong is now impossible, the three friends decide to smuggle medicine into war torn Vietnam for a local Triad, hoping to catch their big break and return to Hong Kong one day rich men.

It works out about as well as you’d think: they’re not in Vietnam a day before a suicide bombing destroys their goods and they witness the South Vietnamese Army casually execute the man in a mission school courtyard. Now desperate, they make contact with Luke (the incomparable Simon Yam) , a half-French, half-Vietnamese hired gun for the Triad boss they were supposed to deliver the goods to. Luke agrees to help them, and they agree to aid him in getting Sally, a nightclub singer Luke has fallen for, out of the country.

Again, the plan is a disaster: Ben cannot resist antagonizing the mob boss before Luke is set and Sally is wounded in the shootout that follows. During their escape, Paul steals a cache of gold the Triad boss was sending upriver to the NVA and becomes completely obsessed with it. Worst of all the NVA attacks the surrounding area as they make their planned escape and by the time they get to their extraction boat Sally has died and Paul has alienated himself from the rest of the group by only being concerned for the gold.

As they make their way upriver in the boat they’re captured by VC and separated from Luke. Paul, who is only concerned with the gold, gets them mistaken for CIA agents when classified intelligence is found in the cache. Frank, the most sensitive of the group, is traumatized when the VC force him to kill POWs for fun, and Paul instantly ducks out of the ordeal by pretending to be a CIA agent and offering fake intel to the Commander. Ben offers to take Frank’s place as faux executioner and turns the tables on the VC just as Luke (who actually does have CIA connections) leads a squadron of Army Rangers in to level the camp.

In the ensuing chaos Paul shoots the hysterical Frank in the back of the head to keep him quiet, Luke is seriously wounded, and Ben is left for dead by the river and nursed back to health by monks. When he tracks Luke down he finds him scarred and missing an arm, but Luke reveals Frank is much worse.

The bullet in his head has destroyed his mind and now he kills for enough money to get a heroin fix; alternating between catatonic highs and insufferable pain. Heartbroken, Ben shoots Frank to end his misery and returns to Hong Kong to settle things with Paul.

Ben reunites with Jane and finds her with a son, who may or may not be his, whom Jane has named for Frank. Paul is a successful triad, on the verge of being named the new chairman when Ben crashes the meeting with Frank’s skull and confronts Paul in front of the board. Ben waits out in the parking garage to kill Paul and chases him down to the same docks they played at as a child where a showdown ensues. Paul gets the drop on Ben but is so haunted by what he did to Frank that he squanders his advantage and Ben manages to kill him. Amidst the burning wreck of the damage they did to the docks, Ben screams out to the heavens as the film ends.

Bullet in the Head’s primary theme is man’s capacity for self destruction in the name of acquisition and the soul erosion produced by power. The powerful negative effect the gold has on Paul might convince the viewer on first glance to see the film as fundamentally Marxist, but Woo rejects structural solutions in a way that almost echoes Leone.

Power and Money are bad because people are so easily corrupted and access to those things only expands the palette of their cruelty. The vicious opium addicted gang boss of the first act isn’t really so different from the suave, upscale, Triad pimp of the second act, or the two interchangeable death squads that our heroes come under the control of at different points in the story. All of them are bullies for whom human life is merely instrumental in the continued accumulation of more power.

Against this existential reality one can only cling to what matters most and hope to do right (as Ben does) or join in the slaughter hoping to become too big to be bullied (as Paul does)– those who believe they can walk the line without touching either side (as Frank does) will be destroyed– ground up in a thresher that demands human sacrifices to elevate the powerful.

For Woo these concerns were not abstract existential issues but rather a literal matter of life and death.

The 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China was looming large and Woo, as the child of Lutheran missionaries who had fled the Mainland during the Civil War, was deeply concerned with whether he’d be able to live under home rule. Adding to these concerns were the June 4th massacres in 1989 (the most famous of which was at Tiananmen Square, and especially Hong Kong’s silence to them.

Woo wanted to be able to discuss the handover in his films but was continually told no by producers like Hark, who he knew had his own personal plans to emigrate but didn’t want to offend the people going to see an action film with political statements. This poisoning of an artistic environment that had nurtured him is the basis for the hypocrisy and cynicism of Paul in Bullet in the Head.

The film recreates the central image of the Tiananmen Square protests as well as famous images from the Vietnam War like the photo of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a VC at point blank range and a naked child running away from the carnage as well as swiping many visual elements from The Deer Hunter in order to suggest a world in moral turmoil– a world where the bullies have no limits placed on them by civilization.

Unfortunately this anti-authority political bent (particularly the anti-CCP elements) have kept Bullet in the Head from getting the same level of popular attention that Woo’s other great heroic bloodshed films did upon release. This neglect is only compounded by the current rights holders to Woo’s Hong Kong work refusing to allow the films to be licensed for physical release as almost every other Hong Kong star’s work has been recently.

The current situation is so bad that the print I saw at Mahoning is the only commercially available 35mm print in North America. There is no film greater, and more approachable that has been kept under lock and key in recent memory than Bullet in the Head.

So this article is not just a love letter to the film and the Drive-In I saw it at but a call to action: see this film however you can. Steal it, bootleg it, torrent it– just SEE IT. See it and talk about it, allow it to rejoin the pantheon of great world films of the 80’s and 90’s.

Enrich your own perspective and the conversation around movies.

Courtesy of the Internet Archive, enjoy Bullet in the Head.

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