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Asian American Transnationalism in John Woo's BAt in the Head Karen War-Yen Chow John Woo's international cult following has largely grown around wellknown action thriller flicks like The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, Hardboiled , Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and the recently released Mission: Impossible 2. The now-familiar hallmarks of these films are slow-motion cinematography, acrobatic, rapid-fire shootouts (with triangulated cocked guns), and the themes of male bonding and loyalty. With these wellknown features, Woo has proved that, even in an industry where he is a non-native, he can churn out commercially successful, blockbuster movies that might be low on thought-provoking theme but are nonetheless high on jaw-dropping visual effects. Why, then, talk about Woo's Bullet in the Head, (1990), a film which seems nothing more than another bead on a string of high-action flicks? Woo's most costly film at the time, Bullet performed disappointingly at the box office, not even recouping its $4 million budget. And, in film history , Bullet will probably be remembered as Woo's unwieldy homage to The Deer Hunter, as it is also set in Vietnam. One reason for talking about Bullet is that, to date, it is Woo's closest nod to socio-political commentary on the state of Hong Kong in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Bullet, the protagonists are three young male friends, Ben, Paul, and Frank, urban feizai or, literally, "flyboys" and JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 30.3 (Fall 2000): 364-384. Copyright © 2000 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. Asian American Transnationalism 365 street gangsters who set out for Vietnam in order to make a fortune that they hope will bring an end to their impoverished existence in Hong Kong. The year is 1967. Inevitably, the three friends run into life-threatening circumstances from which, in predictable Woo fashion, they are required to lie, cheat, fight, and shoot their way out. Embedded in this otherwise lugubrious plot, however, are brutal and nightmarish scenes and conversations that can be read as alluding to, or commenting upon, a range of issues related to cultural identity in post-World War Πera Hong Kong: its relation to colonialism, its rapid economic and industrial expansion, and, beginning in the 1980s, the anxiety experienced by Hong Kong people as they prepared for the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China. Specifically, set in 1967 and thus at the height of the Vietnam War, the protagonists' violent and bloody journey from Hong Kong to Saigon centers on their desire for (and successful acquisition of) the gold that ultimately destroys them. This focus addresses the ambivalence Hong Kong people experienced as a result of Hong Kong's emergence in the 1960s and 70s as a global financial capital, in which American commodity culture threatened to shatter traditional bonds of family, friendship, and community . Put another way, John Woo's Bullet in the Head functions, sometimes obliquely and sometimes quite obviously, as a social allegory that addresses not just the ambivalent nature of cultural identity in Hong Hong, but what I refer to in this essay as Asian American transnationalism. In bringing elements of social allegory to the genre of action films, Woo adds a dimension similar to the kind other directors brought to the genre of American westerns. Leo Braudy notes that with The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford changed the American western from a nostalgic genre depicting an imagined frontier populated with mythic heroes like John Wayne to a more critical genre in which the west functions as social allegory . Braudy asserts, "[i]n the hands of John Ford, the western began to achieve its greatest potential as social allegory and the later flexibility of the western in the 1950s and 1960s is due in great part to the ability of Ford and Howard Hawks to find richer and richer ways to use its resources " (128). Specifically, in Braudy's reading of Ford's western-associal -allegory, "true America for Ford is an enlarged community and community is a large family"(128). Similarly, Woo's films also center upon the conflict between community and family and, in the case of Bullet in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 364-384
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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