“You cheated them out of life by promising them prosperity when the only possible reward was death.” – Dana Scully
“In my belief, death is nothing to be feared. It’s merely a stage of transition but life without hope– now, that’s living hell. So, hope was my gift to these men. I don’t expect you to understand.” – Hard-Faced Man
Our heroes journey to San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood to investigate a string of cremations. This usually warrants no close examination, but in this case, the people were being burned alive.
Max: After the absolute disaster of last episode, it is a relief to regain any modicum of quality in an episode of The X-Files. Luckily, “Hell Money” rewards our patience, and despite being a rather dour low key affair as compared to other more well-known episodes, it is one of those diamonds in the rough that has a rich psychological and cultural subtext.
Mulder and Scully come to Chinatown under Mulder’s assumption that some kind of spectral activity is responsible for the deaths of these men, including Johnny Lo, the latest victim. Little does he know that three masked men attacked Lo in his apartment the night prior, who obliquely demanded that Lo “pay the price.” Hooking up with SFPD Det. Glen Chao, Mulder discovers a symbol written in the incinerator which Chao translates to mean “ghost,” while Scully discovers a piece of currency on Lo’s corpse that the detective clues them in is hell money, part of ancient Chinese rituals used as offerings to the deceased.
What follows is Mulder and Scully’s entree into the Chinatown underworld, where ancient traditions and contemporary crime mingle. We the audience see, apart from the investigation, a man by the name of Mr. Hsin enter into several times a sort of bizarre lottery, where one can either win and gain a substantial sum of money, or lose and be forced to lose an organ or other body part. This dovetails with the investigation, since Scully noticed that Johnny Lo was missing an eye. The agents trail leads to Hsin, who recently installed a carpet for Lo, and they discover that he has a daughter, Kim, who is stricken with leukemia. Hsin feels responsible for his daughter becoming sick, and feels that the underground lottery is the only way he could acquire the finances to pay for Kim’s necessary transplants.
Desperate, even after losing his eye in a previous drawing, Hsin attends another lottery where everything converges. We learn that Det. Chao has been paid off by the operators of the lottery to ensure that the police never learn about the game, and our agents’ suspicion about his loyalties lead them directly to the lottery venue. Unfortunately, Hsin draws the wrong tile again, and is dragged away to be prepped for surgery under the care of a hard-faced, nameless Chinese doctor. Examining the jar from where the lots are drawn, Chao notices that there is no tile that represents winning the money, and loudly condemns the lottery as a sham, and angry participants swarm the case containing the jackpot, and chaos ensues. Despite this, Mulder and Scully are able to reach the operating room in time to stop the hard-faced man before he was able to extract Hsin’s heart.
In police custody, the hard-faced doctor gloats that he will be let go because of a code of silence amongst the population. Moreover, the police are having a hard time locating Det. Chao, who could corroborate the true version of events. Still, Hsin’s daughter Kim is able to get on a donor list due to Scully’s assistance. The episode ends with the reveal of Chao’s whereabouts, the inside of a crematory, being burned alive for his betrayal.
This is an incredibly atmospheric episode, and the exoticism of the subject matter only adds to the overall mise-en-scene. Much like the prototype of “Irresistible,” this episode isn’t really about a paranormal event, but rather schemes and terrors that have very real analogues. In this respect, the tone is very much like an episode of The Twilight Zone, where psychologies and sociological constructs are brutally interrogated. While a lottery like the one in “Hell Money” might not exist in the ancient traditions of Chinese culture, the opportunism that its operators exploit certainly does, and there is a long history of this amongst immigrant populations in the United States. What makes this even more debased is that the operators are of the same immigrant population, and use Chinese traditions and myths as a mask to hide their true intentions.
One thing about the episode I also appreciate is the fact that the main guest actors are all Chinese or of Chinese decent. It is rather easy in American productions for casting agents to substitute one ethnicity for another, have a Japanese or Korean actor play Chinese, or have Indians and Arabs play each other, so I like the verisimilitude of the casting choices, whether it was intentional or not. It gave the story legitimacy, rather than it exploiting a culture for story points and cheap entertainment.
Radhika: “Hell Money” is definitely one of The X-Files’ better attempts to tell a story embedded outside everyday American culture. Generally speaking, while the show tends to be fairly respectful of non-U.S. cultures, there have been some missteps along the way where the outsiders seem a little too much like caricatures. In “Hell Money,” it can be argued that we see a bit of that, but there are some attempts to break outside that mold, including Chao’s speech to Mulder and Scully: “You might see the face of a Chinese man here, but let me tell you something — they don’t see the same face. They see the face of a cop… American-born Chinese, ABC To them, I’m just as white as you are.” The show at least tries to address the nuance of culture and cross-culturalism, and for that I give it props — it’s a pretty decent, if imperfect, attempt for a mid-nineties era episode.
Overall, despite the lack of a super paranormal presence, “Hell Money” is a nice return to form as Max pointed out. It’s a solid MOTW episode, one of those random episodes you could tune into and watch just for the sake of fulfilling your desire to watch an X-File, without having to worry too much about how much it affects the story’s overall arc. And unlike the previous episode, “Teso dos Bichos,” it’s not one you’d be embarrassed about watching with a non-Phile — I think it has an appeal for both the casual and regular watcher. As most MOTW episodes should!
It’s also a treat for me to see some of the now very recognizable guest stars in this episode: Lucy Liu and B.D. Wong. It just about supports my theory that anyone who was anyone — or was about to be anyone — wound up guest starring on The X-Files at some point or the other.
There isn’t much more I can add that Max hasn’t already, so I’m going to wrap up here, as I giddily anticipate our next episode, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.”
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
B.D. Wong – Playing the conflicted Det. Glen Chao, Wong has been a presence on television and film since the 1990s. He is mostly known nowadays for his role as psychologist George Huang in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He also had roles in the HBO prison drama Oz and the Margaret Cho comedy All-American Girl. On the big screen, he can be seen in Jurassic Park, Seven Years In Tibet, and voiced a character in Disney’s Mulan.
Lucy Liu – Here in one of her early roles as the sickly Kim Hsin, Lucy would break out a year after this episode as a fellow lawyer in the zeitgeist defining program Ally McBeal. Now playing Watson on CBS’ Sherlock Holmes procedural Elementary, she could also been seen on Southland, Dirty Sexy Money, and played herself on Sex And The City. In film, she’s been one of Charlie’s Angels and an adversary of Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Other motion pictures include Domino, Watching The Detectives, Lucky Number Slevin, and Chicago.
James Hong – A character actor of great renown, Hong has hundreds of credits to his name. From the hard-faced man in “Hell Money” to guest spots in Miami Vice, MacGyver, The West Wing, and the Chinese restauranteur in Seinfeld. He also has voiced many cartoon characters, from those in Dexter’s Laboratory to today’s subversive spy comedy Archer. In cult circles, he’s famous for a supporting role in Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner, as well as Tank Girl, The Shadow, and the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. For someone who has been in showbiz since the 1950s, his oeuvre is not shabby at all.