The X-Files: “Hell Money”

Hell Money

by Sarah Stegall

copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Jeffrey Vlaming

Director: Tucker Gates

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional episode of “The X-Files” that has nothing of the otherworldly about it; one of the best episodes of the series, “Irresistible“, has only the barest whiff of a paranormal bouquet about it. But if we are not to be entertained with a spooky tale of UFOs or the supernatural, I would at least like something outre’, something out of the ordinary. “Irresistible”, although not a mystery, was still about a monster, a man whose motivations and acts were less understandable, less human if you will, than a whole fleet of mother ships. In “Hell Money”, written by Jeffrey Vlaming and directed by Tucker Gates, the events were driven by an all too human, all too common motive: simple greed. This was a story I would expect to see on “Homicide” or “Law and Order”, not “The X- Files”. There was nothing unusual or outlandish about it, unless one is insular enough to consider Chinatown an exotic locale.

Mulder and Scully investigate the case of a young Chinese immigrant found burning to death inside a crematorium in Chinatown. A slip of ceremonial money, “hell money” intended to be burned as an offering to ancestral spirits, leads Mulder and Scully into the heart of Chinatown and the “Festival of the Hungry Ghosts”, where a lottery ticket can cost you an arm and a leg. Or a liver. Michael Yama stars as a desperate father who, to raise money for his daughter’s life-saving operation, agrees to auction off his body parts in a lottery more diabolical than anything dreamed up by Shirley Jackson. Mulder and Scully are aided by Glen Chao (B. D. Wong), a Chinese-American detective on the San Francisco Police Department, who seems to be doing all the work.

B. D. Wong turned in a fine performance as Det. Chao. I was genuinely surprised and disappointed (in a good way) to find that he was tied to the gambling ring; Wong made his genial, long-suffering yet good-humored Det. Chao so likable that I was hoping he could somehow redeem himself. His overturning of the tables (which reminded me of Christ and the money-changers, for some reason) was an excellent scene, letting his outrage and the outrage of the cheated lottery participants erupt in a satisfying denouement. It was a shock, then, after his redemptive work in stopping the Hardfaced Man (James Hong) at his butcher’s work, to find him waking up in the crematorium oven. He deserved better, and I was angry that Mulder and Scully had not foreseen the danger to him and helped him.

Other performances did not work as well. James Hong has had the cold-eyed Inscrutable Oriental with the Heart of Ice routine down for years, and I wondered if the jar of eyes Mulder and Scully found was a reference to Hong’s work in “Blade Runner” (“I only do eyes!”). Michael Yama, unfortunately, seemed to be reading his broken Cantonese from cue cards…slowly. I could not figure out if that was part of his characterization.

In fact, one major drawback of this entire episode was the extensive foreign dialogue. If you’re going to use subtitles for this, you have to translate *all* of the dialogue; there were several scenes where vital information was withheld from non-Chinese speakers by simply not subtitling a conversation (such as Chao’s conversation with Mr. Hsin during their first meeting). Not only is this cheating, the omission is so obvious it virtually screams “manipulation” in our faces. I would prefer to be led by the nose with more subtlety. I’m still trying to figure out why *any* of this episode was conducted in Chinese–unless it was to conceal vital information from us (such as the structure of the game). Since I speak enough Mandarin to be confused by Cantonese, it was not a tactic I appreciated.

Finally, I failed to discern a major threat here. In order to be in danger of waking up in an oven, one had to buy a ticket to a dangerous game, knowing the risks full well. As horrific as the fate of Johnny Low and Glen Chao turned out to be, (not to mention Cornea Man and Mr. Hsin) it was not one that came upon them unexpectedly. It was a risk they took. That considerably lessens the implied “threat” to the viewer, the “it could happen to me” frisson that lent, for example, such raw horror to “Irresistible”.

The interesting lesson to draw from “Hell Money” was the fact that, as happens so often in history, the immigrant community is preyed upon as much from within as from without. Like the Mafia, which originally terrorized only Italian immigrant ghettos, and the current crop of Vietnamese home invasion gangs in California, the greedy organ thieves of “Hell Money” are preying on their own people. Who is in a better position to exploit their helplessness, their fears, their dreams? Certainly, there are obstacles enough in the larger community to threaten the well-being of immigrants, but when one must guard against one’s own people, paranoia must certainly take a deep hold. Perhaps that, after all, is the X-File at the heart of “Hell Money”.

This episode would have made a run-of-the-mill cop story for “NYPD Blue” or “Nash Bridges”. As an X-File, it just does not measure up. I give this one two out of five sunflower seeds.