BULLET IN THE HEAD - The Composite Print

I've written before in the pages of Cashiers du Cinemart about the period in my life when I was first exposed to the cinema of Hong Kong and how it blew my little collegiate-Junior mind. After experiencing the poetic bloodshed of John Woo's THE KILLER and his adieu to Hong Kong, HARDBOILED, I was thirsty for more of what HK had to offer. The stars had aligned in such a way that my insatiable desire was whetted with a few campus screenings of Jackie Chan's ARMOUR OF GOD and Woo's BULLET IN THE HEAD.

Often overlooked as a pale prequel to Woo's A BETTER TOMORROW films or a poor man's pastiche of Michael Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER and John Huston's TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, Woo's 1990 film was an inspired examination of friendship and loyalty through trying times. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and felt that it showcased the natural evolution from Woo's "three protagonist" A BETTER TOMORROW to the "buddies on opposite sides of the fence" works of THE KILLER and HARDBOILED (I'm leaving out ONCE A THIEF because I detest it).

Ben (Tony Leung), Paul (Waise Lee), and Frank (Jacky Cheung) are three rough and tumble Hong Kong youths. A noble dance instructor with a penchant for Elvis, Ben marries his sweetheart Jane (Fennie Yuen). Paul, the son of a street sweeper, is determined to rise above his humble means by any means necessary. Sincere to a fault, Frank comes from bad breeding but has a heart of gold. After Frank goes to a loan shark to pay for Ben's wedding, he's accosted by a local gangster, Ringo, who's after the money. This sets off a tragic set of events which leads to the three friends fleeing from Hong Kong for Saigon.

Hoping to become war profiteers, the boys soon learn that they're in far above their heads. Between terrorist bombings and anti-war protests, the trio visits the Bolero night club and become entangled in a strained relationship between the nightclub's chanteuse Sally (Yolinda Yam), its owner Mr. Leong (Chung Lam), and Leong's main muscle man Luke (Simon Yam). Fleeing from Leong, things go from bad to worse as the group find themselves trapped between the Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. This leads to a harrowing scene in a Viet Cong prison camp.

It's not the Vietnamese Army, Viet Cong, or even war profiteers can come between the HK boys. It's greed that finally tears them apart. A case of stolen gold causes Paul to turn on his friends. In order to save his skin and his gold, Paul shoots Frank (giving him the titular bullet in the head) and escapes back to Hong Kong to become a big shot businessman. Ben catches up to Frank some time later to confront him about Frank and exact a fitting dose of revenge.

Eventually, I would find that I could rent HK videos from a small Chinese grocery store some thirty miles from my off-campus housing. I was delighted to find BULLET IN THE HEAD there and share it with one of my cinephile friends. Watching it, I was a bit dismayed when one of the most crucial scenes of the film - when the film's three protagonists are forced at gunpoint to quaff a few pints of urine - was missing from the print. But the bigger shock was yet to come. When the film was supposed to end, it didn't. I sat, mouth agape, as I witnessed a completely different, over-the-top spectacle.

I wasn't too pleased by this "new" version of BULLET IN THE HEAD that I saw but figured I had inadvertently rented some kind of Taiwanese bootleg and that I would find the theatrical version. When the time came to buy BULLET IN THE HEAD on DVD, I had hoped that I would see the theatrical cut again but this was not to be. This planted a seed that took a few years to become an obsession.

I soon learned that there weren't just two versions of the film but several. BULLET IN THE HEAD has been released on VHS, DVD, VCD, and Laserdisc in at least seven countries with apparent differences between each country and format. The differences between these weren't simply the lack of the "piss drinking" scene and the extended "car joust" ending. Rather, research revealed some thirty-odd shots/scenes that were omitted or altered. And, from what I could determine, my precious theatrical cut had never surfaced as a legitimate release.

BULLET IN THE HEADHaving read about and experienced a handful of fan edits meant to preserve particular "cuts" of a film, I decided that it was time to act. I was determined to either find the BULLET IN THE HEAD theatrical cut or to piece together my own. I started trading for and buying as many of the versions I could find: British, Thai, Dutch, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, American, and French. Finally I hit a lucky break by hooking up with Neil Koch of hkfilm.net who was able to hook me up with a bootleg VHS. Here was my piss-drinking scene. Meanwhile, the proper ending resided as an extra on the UK DVD. I had the two major players and would see about the other thirty-some differences along the way.

I digitized the VHS boot and used it as my basis for piecing together a "definitive" version of BULLET IN THE HEAD. I wanted to create a version that would be as sharp and "DVD quality" as I could while containing as much of the footage that the bootleg had to offer. The most complete DVD that I could find was the Japanese release (and, with this being NTSC it eliminated the variance in frame rate that a PAL release presented). I put both of these versions into Sony Vegas 6.0, dumping the DVD audio track and going with the bootleg's differently-mixed soundtrack. From there I went frame by frame, comparing the two - using the DVD for the majority of the project and filling it in with pieces from the bootleg wherever applicable. For ease of contrast, I was able to watch both pieces of video at once by fading out the top track by 50%. Seeing both at once was something of a strange experience.

I took the boardroom ending from the UK DVD - using as much of the better-preserved Japanese DVD as I could - and had to utilize credits from the HK VCD. The quality of these credits was very shoddy. Not only were they compressed badly for the VCD but they were slightly crooked on screen! I straightened those out as best I could.

I had a list of variances from Wikipedia and an archived version of A Website Never Dies but soon put those aside as they didn't apply very well to this project (something on the internet not fully accurate?). Rather than the "two second here" and "four seconds there," I was sussing out frames that might turn into seconds or even full scenes that existed wholly in one source or another. For the most part, the bootleg had a wealth of shots that were missing in the DVD release, especially during set pieces such as the anti-war protest in Vietnam, the boat escape from the Vietnamese army, and the prison camp sequence.

Yet, the DVD had more information around reel changes in addition to a few extra shots not present in the bootleg, including an exchange between Frank and Sally in Bolero and a sequence of Luke coming to the boys' rescue. At times, the DVD also had shots in a different order. For this project I re-arranged all of the shots to line up with the bootleg whenever possible. Of everything, I noted that Paul and his thirst for gold had a larger presence in the bootleg with more shots of him saving his chest during the shootout at Bolero and the aforementioned boat escape.

Subtitling presented some interesting decisions. Did I go with the old school "Engrish" subs from the original HK release or the much more antiseptic titles of the UK release? I went with a mix of both with the scales weighted much more towards the "Engrish" titles. Ben, Frank, Paul and Luke would keep their anglicized names. I cleaned up grammar and punctuation as best I could, using the UK disc as backup for particularly troubling phrasing.

BULLET IN THE HEADAnd, finally, as something of a counterpoint to the film, I ripped the audio commentary track from the UK DVD by Bey Logan and added it to the composite print. Logan's commentary loses synch with this the composite version of the film almost immediately, meaning that he sounds like he's five to twenty minutes behind the action as the film proceeds. I was tempted to re-cut his audio to bring him up to speed but felt like he served as almost a "picture in picture" version of the more easily-attainable DVD. Ironically, with all of the extra material throughout the rest of the film, Logan's commentary ends at the very end of the film despite lopping off the overly-long "car joust" ending (rounding out to about two hours and six minutes).

As an added bonus, I recreated the UK supplemental disc - converting it to NTSC and omitting the superfluous previews for THE KILLER, ONCE A THIEF and the horrid "Americanized" preview of BULLET IN THE HEAD ("In a time..."). I also relegated the "car joust" ending to this disc along with the various interviews from the UK collection.

Of course... scant weeks after I completed this project I learned that Joy Sales was to release the movie on a two-disc deluxe edition including the original ending, the alternate ending (here they say that the car joust was original and the boardroom was alternate -- this may be true but I still like the boardroom ending best) and a re-integration of deleted scenes. In short, all my work was pretty much for naught. But isn't that always the way it goes?

Download the composite print here

Following up on his 1989 masterpiece The Killer, superstar action director John Woo directs this emotionally wrenching look at three friends waylaid in war-torn Vietnam. Set in 1967, when clashes between leftists protesting British rule and the police were tearing the colony apart, the film opens with Frank (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) offering the deed to his parents' home as collateral to a loan shark, so that he can pay for his buddy Ben's (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) wedding party. Unfortunately, Frank is ambushed by a thug named Ringo and his associates who make off with the money. Ben and Frank vow revenge and end up accidentally killing the guy. Wanted by both the law and the triads, Frank, Ben, and their pal Paul (Waise Lee Chi-hung) head for Vietnam with a case of fake Rolexes and dreams of making a quick buck. Immediately upon arrival, those dreams are dashed -- their wares are blown up in a tin-can military coup, they are almost shot by the South Vietnamese army, and their passports are seized. Though tempted to throw in the towel, Frank and Ben are convinced by Paul into joining forces with shady hit man named Luke (Simon Yam Tat-wah) to shake down club owner Leong (Lam Chung). The scheme goes horribly wrong, ending with the death of a beautiful drug-addled singer named Sally (Yolinda Yan Chi-sin) and our three heroes accused of being CIA agents in a North Vietnamese POW camp. Later, though, Frank saves Paul's live and get injured in the process, Paul can only think of financial gain and saving his own neck. He shoots Frank in the head when he fears his friend's cries of agony will tip off the Vietcong. Unfortunately, the bullet doesn't kill Frank, leaving him brain damaged, drug-addled, and in chronic pain. After Ben learns of Frank's condition, he confronts Paul who has since returned to Hong Kong to become a prominent businessman. John Woo was originally planning to make this film under the name A Better Tomorrow 3 until Tsui Hark took the franchise away from him, fashioning his own version. DVD Releases The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino) Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola) American Eagle (1990, Robert J. Smawley) Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean) Casualties of War (1989, Brian De Palma) Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone) Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) A Better Tomorrow III (1989, Tsui Hark) Hard-Boiled (1992, John Woo) The Killer (1989, John Woo) Hard Target (1993, John Woo) A Better Tomorrow (1986, John Woo) The Last Emperor (1987, Bernardo Bertolucci) Tongs: A Chinatown Story (1986, Philip Chan) Killer! (1989, Tony Elwood) Once Upon a Time in China (1991, Tsui Hark)