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It’s always a pleasure to receive DVDs through the mail, and it’s even better when those DVDs fall under Contender Entertainment’s Hong Kong Legends banner. Over the past few months I’ve been lucky enough to review a good number of their discs, and I’ve been most impressed by the way in which the company maintains continually high standards in both quality and presentation. As a relative newcomer to the delights of Asian cinema my only real exposure to director John Woo’s work has been in the American films Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2, so I was especially pleased to receive a brand spanking new copy of the Platinum Edition of one of Woo’s most celebrated films, Bullet in the Head.

Bullet in the Head: Platinum Edition

Feature


Opening in Hong Kong of the 1960s, Bullet in the Head tells the story of three long-time friends, Bee, Fai and Wing, who are forced to leave the country after killing a rival gang leader. Hoping to start anew as smugglers, the trio journey to war-torn Vietnam where they seek out local gangster Leung Yeun-sing. However, a chance encounter with the beautiful Chinese singer Yan Sau-ching, who is being held against her will and forced into acts of prostitution, causes the friends to rethink their plans. With the aid of an assassin named Lok, who is in love with Sau-ching, the trio hatch a plan to double-cross Leung, rescue the girl, and steal a box of gold. Unfortunately things go awry and the friends find themselves captured by the Viet Cong and accused of working for the CIA. Imprisoned in a POW camp, they are subjected to horrendous psychological torture at the hands of the Viet Cong, testing their loyalties to the limit. But when one of the group commits the ultimate act of betrayal, things between these ‘brothers’ will never be the same again…

On the whole, Bullet in the Head is very well acted. I was particularly impressed with Tony Leung’s performance, but both Jackie Cheung and Simon Yam also turn in admirable efforts. I was less impressed with Waise Lee’s turn, but I personally don’t feel that it warranted the mauling given to it by Bey Logan in the commentary track. However, this probably has much to do with my inability to speak Cantonese, and I concede that someone familiar with the languagem, such as Logan, would be in a better position to judge the performance. However, having watched a number of action films in my time I do feel qualified to rate the scenes in Bullet in the Head, and on the whole I was very impressed. There are some amazing set-pieces littered throughout, with my personal favourite being the showdown with Leung’s men in the Bolero nightclub.

However, the film isn’t all about the action; there’s plenty of emotional content as well. It seems to me that this is a very personal film for director John Woo. It’s clear from the commentary and the interviews that he was greatly affected by Tiananmen Square massacre, and he and he uses images of the Hong Kong riots of the sixties and, more obviously, peace protesters in Vietnam to express his feelings on the matter. The film also portrays a strong sense of comradery between the leads, one more akin to brothers than friends, and I have to admit to being quite moved by the final act of the film.

Bullet in the Head: Platinum Edition

Video


Touted as their finest restoration work yet, Hong Kong Legends presents Bullet in the Head in the anamorphically enhanced, but slightly cropped, 1.78:1 ratio. While not as accomplished as even the most pedestrian of today’s modern releases, this is indeed an impressive transfer for a fourteen year old Hong Kong flick. I was initially struck by the unusually naturalistic colour rendition, which delivers particularly realistic flesh tones, but I must also mention the consistency of the black levels. Some of the previous Hong Kong Legends discs have suffered slightly in this department, but Bullet in the Head remains rock-solid throughout. The image is also particularly sharp given the origins of the source material, and on the whole I’d have to say that this is the best Hong Kong Legends transfer I’ve seen since Moon Warriors.

With all of that said, the image is not without its flaws. Although surprisingly infrequent, film artefacts do rear their ugly heads in the form of the occasional scratch or fleck on the print, and there is also significant grain present throughout. The other most noticeable problem with the image is during the opening fifteen minutes or so, when the picture has the unnerving tendency to ‘wobble’ vertically. I found this terribly distracting, but thankfully it didn’t continue for the entirety of the film.

Audio


As is usual for these releases, viewers have the choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in both the original Cantonese and dubbed English. Of course, I opted for the original language track as I find most dubs abhorrent, and I would respectfully suggest you do the same if you want to get the most from this release. Unfortunately the Cantonese audio is again presented in the lower Dolby bitrate of 384Kbps, while the English dub gets the 448Kbps treatment. Go figure.

As with most Hong Kong Legends releases, the 5.1 audio is actually more akin to glorified stereo. While this is a little disappointing when one imagines the possibilities of remixing an action film like Bullet in the Head, it is important to remember that it is representative of the original mix. Everything of importance, from dialogue to gunfire, is clearly audible, but the mix lacks the ‘oomph’ of a ‘proper’ 5.1 track and the lower bitrate makes the whole thing sound tinny. When guns are fired and things explode I want deep, rumbling bass from the subwoofer; I want ornaments rattling and pets cowering. Unfortunately Bullet in the Head is a bit of a damp squib in this department. In fact the whole mix is decidedly flat, which is a great shame considering the amount of on-screen action. It may be a faithful representation of the source material, but after the fantastic effort put into the video restoration I can’t help but wonder what results a similar effort in the aural department would have yielded.

Extras


Hong Kong Legends is well known for the quality of their supplemental features, but they can occasionally be a little thin on the ground for my liking. That’s not a problem for this stunning two disc Platinum Edition, which delivers one of the finest collections of bonus material I’ve seen from the company.

Disc one includes the now customary Bey Logan commentary, and as usual he doesn’t disappoint. As usual the track is full of interesting and informative comments, although the absence of any input from John Woo is lamentable. Bey mentions how he practically begged Woo to join him for the commentary, but the director was apparently too busy to participate. The track itself was recorded in late 2003, which would explain why Bey goes on to say that perhaps they can get John Woo involved for the two-disc special edition! Ahem…

Bullet in the Head: Platinum Edition
Rounding off things on the fist platter we have the usual assortment of trailers for other Hong Kong legends and Premier Asia titles. In addition to six Hong Kong Legends trailers— The Killer, Naked Weapon, Tiger on the Beat, Moon Warriors, Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon and Iron Monkey—the disc also includes trailer for Premier Asia’s The Grudge, Ichi the Killer, Volcano High, Bang Rajan, Bichunmoo and The Warrior.

Moving over to disc two we come to the bulk of the supplemental features. These features are divided into four categories, the first of which is entitled The Players. The first item in this section is Baptism of Fire: An Interview with Jackie Cheung. Speaking in English, Cheung discusses the experience of making Bullet in the Head, and is occasionally punctuated with footage from the film. Thankfully Cheung is easy enough to understand throughout.

The second interview is entitled Paradise Lost: An Interview with Waise Lee. Speaking in Cantonese with English subtitles, Lee’s interview is easily the most free-flowing of the bunch. Unencumbered by his limited knowledge of English, he talks openly about the way in which filmmaking in Hong Kong has changed over the last ten to fifteen years, with the average Hong Kong movie today taking just fifteen days to shoot, as opposed to Bullet in the Head’s five months. He also goes into detail about his experiences when making the film; with specific regard to the bond formed between the leads while shooting on location in Thailand. He also shares a story or two about John Woo’s motivational techniques, which are somewhat harsh to say the least!

The final interview is entitled Biting the Bullet: An Interview with Simon Yam, and it’s introduced by a short skit featuring Yam and Bey Logan. While not earth-shatteringly funny, it’s nice to see Bey in the flesh, as opposed to a disembodied voice. Aside from the film, Yam talks about his philanthropic work in Thailand, where he pays for the education of twelve children. Yam’s English isn’t as clear as Jackie Cheung’s, and I occasionally found it a little difficult to understand exactly what he was saying. I should moan however, as his English is a hundred times better than my Cantonese!

The next menu on the disc is entitled The Artists, and contains interviews with three of the people involved in the behind-the-scenes elements of production. The first of these is Tempting Fate: An Interview with Patrick Leung. Leung acted as the co-writer and co-producer on the movie, and speaking in Cantonese with English subtitles he discusses such topics as the frequent re-writes, location shooting in Thailand, the casting of the then unknown actors, and the injuries sustained by certain Thai extras who didn’t know when to steer clear of explosions! There’s also some discussion of the various different cuts of the movie, due in part to pressure from the distributors and the political climate. Unfortunately, as Leung explains, much of the excised footage has been lost forever. The interview runs just shy of twenty minutes, and provides a fascinating insight into the creative process.

Bullet in the Head: Platinum Edition
Interview number two is a fourteen minute piece entitled A Walk on the Wild Side: An Interview with Lau Chi-Ho. Lau was the action choreographer on Bullet in the Head, and he discusses Woo’s desire for realism and variation in the action scenes. He also talks about various incidents that occurred during filming, such as injuries to both Simon Yam and Waise Lee, and praises the dedication of the Thai stuntman. This s yet another interesting interview, but it’s probably the least satisfying of the bunch overall as Lau doesn’t go into as much detail as the others.

Interview number three is Natural Selection: An Interview with David Wu , and is conducted in English (very good English at that). Wu was the man responsible for editing the film, and his interview lasts for an impressive thirty minutes or so, in which time he discusses both himself and John Woo, the filmmaking process and more. Wu talks about his relationship with John Woo, which stretches from their days at Shaw Brothers in the seventies to the nineties and beyond. He also talks about Woo’s reasoning behind casting virtual unknowns, and goes into tremendous detail about the production as a whole, as well as other films such as The Killer. This is easily the most interesting and informative of the three interviews in this section, and I was enthralled throughout the entire running time.

The third menu is entitled The Archive, and includes a wealth of trailers, an alternate ending, and a couple of John Woo featurettes. The Trailers menu itself includes the original theatrical and UK promotional trailer for Bullet in the Head, along with entries for Woo’s Once a Thief and The Killer.

Next up we have the Alternate Ending, which presents exactly that. The quality of this scene is well below the standards that you would normally expect from Hong Kong Legends (something they themselves point out in a brief disclaimer), but it does serve as an example of what a great job they’ve done with the restoration of the feature itself. The scene features burned in subs for the most part, although there is one exchange just before the end that isn’t subtitled. I won’t reveal the ending here for fear of spoiling it for the rest of you, but I will say that it is far more in keeping with the tone of the film than the theatrical ending.

Life through a Lens is the first featurette in this section. This is a thirteen minute piece in which an American interviewer questions the director about all aspects of his career. Speaking in English, Woo gives some valuable insights into this and the filmmaking process in general, but the interview isn’t as insightful as I might have liked. Still, there are some interesting facts to be found here, such as Woo’s love of the work of David Lean, Sam Packinpah and Martin Scorsese, his relationship with Chow Yun-fat, and his plans for the future. Woo does struggle with his English from time to time, which makes for a somewhat disjointed interview, but as I said earlier, his English is better than my Cantonese…

Reflections on Bullet in the Head is a short piece in which Bey Logan takes us around locations similar to those used in the film, such as 1960s style housing estates. He explains a little about the living conditions and how the opening scenes of the film appear to show Woo’s longing for the Hong Kong of yesteryear, and all in all this is an interesting, if short, featurette.

The final section on the disc is entitled the Information Library, and contains probably the least interesting material. This section is full of film notes and biographies for the principal cast, so if static pages full of text are your thing you’re in for a treat!

Bullet in the Head: Platinum Edition

Overall


Bullet in the Head is a fine piece of cinema; one that I enjoyed far more than I expected. The film is not without its flaws—most notably the choppy editing during the first act—but the strong performances from the leads and Woo’s fantastic action direction raise the film out of the mire to stand as perhaps the most accessible Hong Kong action film I’ve yet seen. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Hong Kong Legends has yet again delivered an outstanding set—perhaps the best I’ve seen from the company—with the awesome visual restoration the particular highlight. As mentioned earlier, the absence of direct input from Woo is disappointing, but if you want the very best presentation of this Hong Kong classic there really is no other choice. Suffice to say, this one comes highly recommended.


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