Monday, September 7, 2009

Lie Tou (aka The Headhunter) (1982)


Not one of Chow Yun-Fat's proudest moments, Lie Tou (aka The Headhunter/The Long Goodbye) is a fairly average Hong Kong action thriller which is sunk by some atrocious dubbing and a talky, confusing script. Patient viewers (and fans of Chow's future work with John Woo and Ringo Lam) will enjoy the occasional fun action scene, but there's little here to hint at the superstar that Yun-Fat would become in the following decades.

Chow stars as Nguyen (or, in the English dub.. Andy!), a former soldier and Vietnam immigrant now living in Hong Kong as a film special effects technician - and part time assassin! Nguyen is, as usual, a killer with a conscience and is haunted by his experiences in the war, wishing only to pay for his family to join him so he can stop the killing. After falling for a beautiful TV reporter (Rosamund Kwan), the two discover that the film company that Nguyen works for has been manufacturing chemical weapons for the US. Eventually, Nguyen's past comes back to haunt him (in the form of Kim Tai-Yung, a fellow soldier out to murder him for abandoning him during the war), and someone eventually gets their head chopped off. Who will it be? You'll have to tune in!


Is the Headhunter a meditation on the long term effects of those traumatized by the Vietnam war? Or, is it simply a reaction to the dozens of "Vietnam Vet goes apeshit" movies coming out in the early 80s? While there are hints of a higher purpose, we're a long way from Taxi Driver and the story being told simply doesn't feel significant. The actors generally aquit themselves admirably, particularly Philip Chan as the unhinged Kim Tai-yung, but the dubbing negates most of the famous charisma that Yun-Fat brings to the table, and the reporter sub-plot is predictable. They even pull out the old gag of the reporter looking to make the big reveal to the police, only to find her evidence suspiciously missing.

It's in the unfortunately rare action scenes things do spring to life a bit, particularly during a string of assassinations early in the film. There are a few moments of actual martial arts action as well, though these are fleeting and sometimes hard to make out because of the dark photography. Director Shing Hon Lau shows some talent for building tension during these scenes, but generally his style is flat and uninvolving.


Part of the Millcreek 50 Martial Arts movie pack, The Headhunter is surprisingly presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and appears to be uncut. There are various cuts of the film floating around - the one retitled The Long Goodbye is significantly shorter - but thankfully this version is complete. Despite that good news, the image quality is a mess with washed out color, grain, and the image sometimes being so dark to be almost unwatchable. The score seems to be patched together from library music, which actually is enjoyable when you recognize the music from other sources. Cult movie fans will definitely recognize a piece from the original Dawn of the Dead.

While likely dull even in subtitled form, the dubbing here is appalling, making the long scenes of dialogue embarrasing. This is particularly crippling later in the film when (thanks to some not-so-shocking deaths) the film takes a turn for the melodramatic.


What might have been a solid entry in the slate of Vietnam themed exploitation films in the early 80s, The Headhunter is sunk by an unfortunate focus on the love story which takes focus away from the more enjoyable exploitation elements. These faults are compounded by the weak dub-job and unfortunate image quality. Unless you're a rabid Chow Yun-Fat fan this film and presentation simply isn't worth your time.

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