30 Years Later: Revisiting Bullet In The Head 喋血街頭 (1990)

From the mid-1980s to the early-1990s, John Woo has made some of the most influential Hong Kong action films of all time during the peak of his career including A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> (1986), The Killer <喋血雙雄> (1989) and Hard Boiled <辣手神探> (1992).

Then, somewhere in between, he directed Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭>. Released on August 17, 1990, John Woo combined his recurring themes of brotherhood, friendship and betrayal that he has perfected earlier in A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> and transplanted them into the turbulent 1960s era of Hong Kong and Vietnam.

The movie also reunited Waise Lee, who made such an impressive feature-length acting debut in A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色>. Here, he plays one of the three childhood friends Sau Ming (the other two are Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s Siu Bun and Jacky Cheung’s Fai Jai) who is desperately looking for a way out to make a fortune someplace else.

Then one night, Siu Bun accidentally kills a gangster who is responsible for attacking Fai Jai on the night of his wedding. Knowing that he’s now wanted for murder, the three of them decide to leave Hong Kong and attempt to make a living smuggling contraband goods in war-torn Vietnam.

However, things go awry when they find themselves caught in the middle of a terrorist bombing and end up losing their goods along the way. Complicating the matters further is their subsequent involvement with a hitman named Lok (Simon Yam),  in which they team up to rescue a former Hong Kong singer Sally (Yolinda Yan) from a local gangster Mr Y.S. Leong (Lam Chung).

From there, the friendships between Siu Bun, Fai Jai and Sau Ming are ultimately tested when the latter becomes so obsessed on stealing a box of gold.

With the familiar themes as well as Woo’s signature slow-motion camerawork and violent gunfights, Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭> has all the makings of a potential box-office hit. But the movie failed to make money — an unfortunate result due to Woo’s indirect references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that didn’t sit well with most Hong Kong audiences at the time of its release.

Ironically, Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭> was originally intended to be a prequel to A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> but Woo departed the project after a bitter disagreement with producer Tsui Hark. Tsui himself, or course, took over the directing duty and made the prequel with Chow Yun-Fat reprising his iconic role as Mark Gor under the title of A Better Tomorrow III <英雄本色III夕陽之歌>. That movie was released over nine months before the arrival of  Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭>, in which both of them shared similar thematic subject matters including the Vietnam War setting.

When I first watched Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭> back in the 90s, it didn’t resonate me well if to compare with his more popular movies. Perhaps it has something to do with the gritty nature of the movie set in the politically-charged era that feels as if John Woo trying to emulate Ringo Lam’s filmmaking style. It only took me a couple of rewatch that I eventually appreciated the movie more. Since then, I highly regarded Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭> as one of Woo’s finest movies ever made in his directing career.

Watching it today, Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭> is the kind of movie that no one would dare to produce, let alone finance the project in the current Hong Kong era. Or more specifically, a relic that only made possible during the British-ruled Hong Kong where freedom of expression used to be a significant thing in the past.

Clocking at nearly 140 minutes — no doubt an unusually epic length for a Hong Kong movie, Woo — who also doing his own editing work — knows well how to pull off a pacey rhythm from the get-go. The elaborate Hong Kong scene during the earlier stretch established the friendships between Siu Bun, Fai Jai and Sau Ming in the utmost economical way possible.

Then comes the Saigon scene, with the impressively-choreographed gunfight moment in Leong’s nightclub showcased the usual technical prowess that we come to love in John Woo’s action movies.

It gets increasingly downbeat from there and Woo doesn’t shy away from depicting one harrowing scene after another. This is particularly evident during a brutal sequence where the three friends are held prisoners in a Vietcong concentration camp. Right to the point where Woo raises the stakes that sees the characters forced to pull a trigger against other hapless prisoners — easily echoed the similarity of the famous Russian roulette scene in the late Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter (1978).

Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭> also benefits from an excellent acting ensemble, beginning with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s engaging turn as Siu Bun while Jacky Cheung and Waise Lee both deliver respectively solid performances as Fai Jai and Sau Ming. The only major gripe here is Cheung tends to overact at times, particularly during the later scene where he loses his sanity. Some of his over-the-top acting moments even instantly reminded me of Dean Shek Tin’s Lung Sei suffering from a mental breakdown seen during the early sequences of Woo’s own A Better Tomorrow II  <英雄本色2> (1987).

And yet, Jacky Cheung ended up receiving the Best Actor nomination at the 10th Hong Kong Film Awards, even though he lost to Leslie Cheung in Wong Kar-Wai’s Days Of Being Wild <阿飛正傳>. In addition to the movie’s sole acting nomination, Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭> also landed three more nominations including Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing, with Woo successfully won the latter award.


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