East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Canonball #986: Bullet in the Head

Hong Kong, 1990
Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Waise Lee Chi-Hung, Simon Yam Tat-Wah
Written by John Woo, Patrick Leung Pak-Kin and Janet Chin Siu-Chun
Directed by John Woo

Nearly as dumbly offensive as The Birth of a Nation, and nearly as thrilling. Some aspects of Woo's tastelessness -- his fondness for melodrama, his refusal of any kind of restraint -- are integral to his achievement, while others -- his indifference to collateral damage, his political infantility -- are limiting. Though he doesn't doesn't have the chops of D.W. (like every director not named Jean something), his manly staging and girly cutting turn the Deer Hunter-ripoff, Tienanmen-referencing story into an orgy of violence and homoeroticism and overacting. Loyal buddies Ben (Tony Leung), Frank (Jacky Cheung) and Paul (Waise Lee) have a run in with the local hoods on Ben's wedding night, and by the halfway stage of the movie they're killing dozens at a crime lord's club in Saigon at the peak of the Vietnam War. Also featured are contrasting paragons of female victimhood (Fennie Yuen and Yolinda Yan), and Chow Yun-Fat (Simon Yam).

While overacting is obligatory in a John Woo movie, Cheung's overacting is too conventional -- at least Lee has the excuse that his character's turn is implausible. On the other hand, while Tony Leung is as emo as he's ever been, he's still restrained: through loss and betrayal, reunion and revenge, his body is controlled while his face works overtime. Instead of using the characters' honour to set up their downfall, as a good tragedian would, Woo justifies their atrocities by their devotion to each other. The most strongly felt loss is not one of the dime-a-dozen deaths, but the fracturing of the central trio's friendship, precipitated by a greed-driven disposal of the fraternal code. Which makes the movie more offensively dumb than The Birth of a Nation, and nearly as thrilling.


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