Friday, January 17, 2020


There is a wonderful film by Chang Cheh called Heaven and Hell. It isn't good in the standard sense of the word, and a it isn't a good-bad movie either. It is just a very unique film and a strange blend of styles and tones. I love this movie. When I first saw it, I wasn't quite sure what to think, but with each viewing my fondness for Heaven and Hell grew. I have given my opinions on it HERE and HERE. I also wrote a halloween review for it some years ago for Shaw Brothers Universe (but if my memory is correct it was swapped for another topic I wrote about and slipped through the cracks). 

I like escape from hell scenarios in RPGs. And I think Heaven and Hell is probably the best example of how to run one successfully. I talk about this a bit in Strange Tales of Songling, and I mention the movie Heaven and Hell in one of the adventures in the book. 

Escape from Hell adventures are a great way to turn something like a character death into something much more interesting. Better yet, they are a great way to follow-up an instant party kill. I like lethal games, but I also have no problem with players earning their way back to life if they are up for a whole campaign devoted to it. 

I think there are some basic rules worth considering. I generally follow there rules. First, it shouldn't be easy to make it back. Second there should be ground rules to making it back. Third, failure should have significant downsides. 

If a single player character dies, the escape from hell scenario is easiest to do with them storming hell and helping the other player escape. Exactly how that plays out will be somewhat dependent on the kind of afterlife you are dealing with. If there is a total party kill, then it is very easy to center a whole campaign around escape. This can be as surreal or literal as you want. You can even start a new campaign, with a whole different system if you like, and slowly reveal this is an afterlife and the characters are the spirits of the player characters from the previous campaign. This is one way I began using Strange Tales of Songling, as an afterlife for my Ogre Gate campaigns.

There are lots of movies, legends and stories to draw on for escape from hell. But Something about Chang Cheh's Heaven and Hell seems to line up most with how it would work in practice in a typical RPG. Here is my original Halloween Review of Heaven and Hell (which I think gives an overview of what to expect from it): 

Heaven and Hell provokes different reactions in viewers. I avoided watching Chang Cheh’s divisive delve into the afterlife for many years because I had heard many negative remarks about it. When I did finally watch, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about the movie. Only a few films have had this effect on me. Soon after, I began to think about Heaven and Hell a lot. I began obsessively reviewing the scenes in my mind. I wasn’t sure why, but it clearly had a large impact on me. So I watched it again, and again, and again. I came to love its surreal and experimental approach. It is somewhere between My Young Auntie and Ashes of Time with a dash of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory thrown in. It takes you on a dream-like tour of a genre-splattered cosmology with weird musical interludes, kung fu and dancing. This movie quite literally has everything, but it won’t please everyone. And I think that is why it is so good. 

Heaven and Hell is divided into three parts. It begins in Heaven, in the court of the celestial bureaucracy. We are soon plunged to earth, where the celestial guard, Xin Ling (Li Yi-Min), is banished for helping a heavenly couple escape. There he’s a cigarette smoking taxi driver who dies and goes to Diyu (Hell) after trying to once again save a pair of star-crossed lovers. 

Watching Heaven and Hell, for me, is like going to a concert or a magic show. It is an experience. It is a movie you feel. The plot is fairly crazy, made more strange by some of the aesthetic choices along the way. For example, the earth sequence, which features Alexander Fu Sheng and Jenny Cheng as the star-crossed lovers in question, utilizes intensely minimalist stage design at times and incorporates more than one musical number as well as dance fighting in the manner of West Side Story. This is one of the aspects of the movie that I couldn’t stop thinking about. A lot of people don’t like the minimalist sets and are equally put off by the dancing. It is true the sets can be bare-bones but they create a sense of theater that works and actually immerses me in the experience more deeply by focusing my attention on the essential elements of music and image. I also find it intoxicating. The dancing and the total commitment to a certain feel heightens my experience of the movie. Visually it is impressive and also adds to the atmosphere. Watching it is like being slightly drunk, which is how Ashes of Time always makes me feel.

Most of the film is taken up by the third portion: Hell. We get a tour of Diyu’s gruesome punishments as people are formally judged and assigned an appropriate sentence. This is where the movie feels a little like Willy Wonka to me, with the elaborate props and creative punishments in a psychedelic hellscape. But the exploration of Diyu works and Cheh succeeds in creating an entire world with memorable characters and places. 

In Diyu, Xin Ling meets a woman named Red Dress (Lin Chen-Chi). After a trippy flashback sequence we learn she died on a misadventure involving alcohol, pills and a hypnotic shuffle off of a window sill. They travel the underworld together before being separated and then re-united at Plow Hell. 

Red Dress and Xin Ling are able to appeal their case to the Buddha of Mercy, who tasks Xin Ling with finding men wronged like himself to form a team that will break out of hell. The assembling of the team of heroes affords an opportunity for a series of smaller stories as we learn about each of their tragic backgrounds. They all have been betrayed or done a significant injustice. And what a team. It includes Sun Chien as a Taekwondo expert killed by robbers, Lo Meng as a brash youth with terrific kung fu who got shot in the back, Philip Kwok as a wuxia hero betrayed by his sworn brother, and Bruce Tong as a vengeful son done-in by corrupt magistrates. 

By this point in the movie, there have been so many genres touched upon, and here is where the it feels a bit like My Young Auntie to me. Not only are the heroes all from slightly different genres, they are in many instances from different periods in history. The world created, flattens everything and allows for all these things to exist side-by-side. It is the kind of movie, where you feel like you’ve seen every movie by the end. 

Heaven and Hell has a star-studded cast. Because it is broken up into three parts and each sequence has a largely different cast and title card, it is easy to overlook how many notable actors appear in Heaven and Hell. Everyone from David Chiang to Philip Kwok and Alexander Fu Sheng are present. My understanding is part of the reason for the wide-ranging cast is due to stop-and-start production issues, but I think it just gives the film a larger scope. 

This is, in my opinion, a very compelling movie to watch for Halloween. It is not as scary as some of the other Halloween offerings out there, but it is so strange, dark and surreal that it is worthy of the season. It is inherently divisive. Not everyone feels the same about it. I can’t promise that you’ll love it. I can’t promise you will like it. I can promise it will be a unique experience. I find it impossible to predict how people will receive Heaven and Hell, and that is one the things that makes it so exciting. Watching this film is a roll of the dice, but if you like to gamble, there may be a place for you in hell.  

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