Friday, November 4, 2022


I was watching The Bells of Death last night, with an eye towards my upcoming Lady 87 Campaign, and wanted to discuss the film as well as how a movie like this can translate into adventure ideas. 

The Bells of Death 

Directerd by Yueh Feng and produced by Shaw Brothers in 1968, The Bells of Death is a straight forward but effective tale of revenge. Its strength rests on a simple plot, a likable hero, and three odious villains. It also does a good job of building tension and atmosphere, and provides some clever fights sequences with an edge of brutality to them. 

The movie opens with the three villains on horseback, who spot the future protagonist, Chang Wei Fu (played by Chang Yi) in the woods and ask him for directions. He happily gives them, only to be subjected to a hail of arrows from the group's leader, Zuo Jinglong (played by Lam Kau), also known as Qiangkun Bow. The arrows aren't meant to kill, merely hurt and humiliate. However, the three men follow Chang Wei Fu's directions and happen upon his family homestead, where they kill his mother, father and brother, and kidnap his sister. 

After he returns home to the aftermath, Chang Wei Fu sets out for revenge, finding a powerful master who dispatches a group of bandits on the road. Following the master with no food or water for over a day, he becomes his student. Once this occurs, the film doesn't dwell on the relationship or show us his training. In this case, it felt like a good choice. The heart of the film is the revenge plot and it may have lost some momentum and simplicity if it developed the master-student relationship further. 

When we see Chang Wei Fu next, he is highly skilled and wandering on his own.The Bells of Death from the title are actually from his mother's bracelet, which he now wears around his neck, and they clang with every step. 

He arrives in a town where he sees a woman, Xiangxiang (played by Chin Ping) being chased by a group of men. She was forced into prostitution at the Taotao Mansion, and they are trying to force her back after she escaped. Chang Wei Fu fends off the men and uses an interesting technique where he draws leaves from a tree into his hands then throws them at the men, causing the leaves to adhere so they pull off skin when removed. 

From this point on, Chang Wei Fu and Xiangxiang travel together, but first he stops at Taotao Mansion where he is greeted by Chief Tao, charmingly played by Lee Wan-Chung. A polite, smiling bad guy, he greets Chang Wei Fu and happily answers his questions regarding the three men who killed his family, giving him two of their names and informing him that one of them, Yang Zhang (played by Ku Feng) is nearby. The polite veneer drops and Tao attacks. This leads to a pretty interesting fight sequence that culminates in a kind of palm strike duel between the two men. 

Yang Zhang (l), Zuo Jinglong (c), and Ying Tien (r)

Eventually Chang Wei chases Yang Zhang into a bamboo forest and we get a very nice bamboo forest fight scene. One thing I like about the fights in this film is it does a good job of foreshadowing things. We see Yang Zhang slicing bamboo trees with his axe at an angle, giving them fine, lethal points and creating a sense of unease for whoever is going to fall upon them. 

Once he deals with Yang Zhang, he faces his next foe, Ying Tien, played by Tien Shun. He comes straight out of a horror movie, being one part killer swordsman and one part Jason; he makes for an ominous opponent. He has a strange habit of shifting his neck, which looks extremely eerie, and he has an unusual ability to throw the sound of his foot steps so it seems he is coming from the opposite direction. The two end up facing off in a temple during a rain storm. For me this scene worked because I feared Ying Tien, but also because he was actually one of the more honorable foes Chang Wei Fu faces in the film (pretty much sticking to his word during the fight). Tien Shun is quite memorable in this role. 

On the road, Chang Wei Fu and Xiangxiang develop a kind of romance, but it must be held in abeyance until he finishes avenging his family. He finally reaches Zuo Jinglong, whose something of a combination of the ferociousness of Ying Tien, and the cunning of Yang Zhang. Chang Wei Fu infiltrates Zuo Jinglong's gang, only to discover his sister has been made into the leader's 6th wife. Zuo Jinglong asks him to join him, as they are now family, but the viewer gets the impression he might not keep his word. 

Chang Wei Fu and Xiangxiang
The final fight is good and has a harrowing finish when Zuo Jinglong draws his bow and makes full use of the range advantage that affords. The bow, like the bamboo, is heavily foreshadowed. It is mentioned early in the film that he was known as Qiangkun Bow, but now uses a sword and we see it displayed prominently in Zuo Jinglong's hall when the men are feasting and holding contests after Chang Wei Fu infiltrates them. 

The moment where he meets his sister again works well too, because her reaction gives away Chang Wei Fu's identity (he has infiltrated them by pretending to be another person). There was a close call prior to this, and Zuo Jinglong is intelligent enough to suspect Chang Wei Fu entered their group with a motive of revenge after seeing his aggression in grappling contests with his men. 

Overall it's a solid, no BS wuxia film from that mid to late 60s period. The story is quite easy to follow, it has a nice cast of characters with great villains. You find yourself really rooting for Chin Ping's Xiangxiang to make it through to the end and for Chang Wei Fu to survive his revenge so they can be together.

Gaming The Bells of Death 

When I watch movies like this as I am preparing for a campaign, I am often thinking in specific terms. I know my Lady 87 campaign is likely to involve characters who are criminals, possibly villains, and so watching this I was viewing how I might take a character like Chang Wei Fu as an antagonist for the party. You are almost watching the movie upside down trying to pull as much villain related content as possible. 

When players characters are in criminal organizations, they are robbing, sometimes killing and that links up pretty nicely with the Grudge system in Ogre Gate. But it can be easy to overlook. You have to remind yourself that every bank they rob, every person they kill, can create an enemy in the mold of Chang Wei Fu. And this is quite interesting.

Dealing with an enemy who would be the hero in any other campaign, has some interesting challenges. They are facing an opponent who is in the right, who the players themselves would agree with in real life, and who can leverage that to gain allies against the party. Such a person is also likely to be especially determined. 

Additionally, perhaps their actions don't create a character like Chang Wei Fu, but instead someone more like his master, a martial artist who dedicates himself to seeking promising disciples and training them to send after the party or their organization. This has more long term potential as they could be dealing with waves of heroes, groups of heroes and countless ambushes and traps until they can find and contend with this powerful master who has a just grudge against them. 

This is I think generally useful in terms of thinking about the consequences of any crimes the player characters might commit in a criminal campaign. It may not spur someone to revenge but it could have other fallout as well that directly impacts them. And not all will be bad results for them. As they grow in infamy, they may become a thorn in the side of law enforcement and people may speak of them in fear in local restaurants and homesteads, but they will also attract like minded criminals. The can even become the subject of legend and poetry as their likeness appears on more and more wanted posters. 

That comes in handy when you roll a random encounter and the result is an official. If you've been noting the crimes of your characters over the course of the campaign, and if you have been tracking law enforcements ability to investigate, then you have a clear reason that they might be stopped or have such a run-in. 

The Bells of Death
The other element that leaps out is the Bells of Death themselves. In the movie they are just ominous and help create the atmosphere but in a setting like Qi Xien, they could do any number of things. I had a few ideas around the same concept. The first is they are created when a person's blood is wrongly shed on them, haunting the killer (s) when he hears their tones. This might impose a -1d10 Penalty to certain skills. The other is more related to the person wearing them, and a product of that person's reputation. Anyone who hears it and knows or suspects he is after them, is struck with fear. The wearer might roll command or the bells could be assigned a dice pool, and that would be rolled against the wits of the Target. On a Success the target is so fearful they can only move half their normal movement. On a Total Success they are struck with terror and cannot move at all (they would still be able to attack however). Personally I like fear effects that impact movement but not other actions because it resembles nightmares where you are unable to movie correctly. 

The final idea for the bells would be an item that is beneficial to anyone either fulfilling a grudge or getting revenge. It might add +1d10 to the damage roll when perusing a normal grudge, but +1 Wound when pursuing revenge. And I think it would only work against those directly connected to the grudge or vengeance. 

Something else I liked in the movie was the leaf attack. It was a nice effect (especially for the time) but also seemed like an interesting idea for a Kung Fu Technique because it is useful without being overpowered in combat. Obviously it could be turned into a technique that has a more powerful option to do damage. But I kind of like the idea of a low level Neigong technique that improves with the characters Qi rank, by allowing him to draw in more and more leaves and then expel them onto his enemies for an effect that is visually dazzling but doesn't do any harm until the leaves are removed (perhaps one automatic wound unless the target makes a Medicine TN 8 roll when peeling the leaf off). 

There is also a lot in terms of villains. The one I would choose to model would be Ying Tien. He seems like a great foe to have stalk a party like Jason or Fung Cheng Wu Chi from Master of the Flying Guillotine. These kinds of characters are lumbering and scary. I find them useful in campaigns because they can be sent in when the players are already on other adventures, and they add an an intensity to things. For this character I would definitely consider modeling his lightness kung fu after the footstep throwing he was able to do. And I would probably give him a very powerful sword with a technique that can kill in a single blow. 

Chang Wei Fu faces Ying Tien
Zuo Jinglong's organization itself offers plenty of food for thought. There are a number of moments that give the viewer useful windows into its structure. You get a sense of a much larger network but also a sense of how the top leadership functions. And you also get a sense of what his headquarters are like. This is the kind of thing I would draw on as I am making a new organization. It gives useful ideas for fronts, for how much influence a criminal sect can have, etc. But also helps establish the internal social organization of it. 

This is just scratching the surface based on my thoughts watching it last night. Something like the bow would also be useful to consider. There are a number of bow techniques in Ogre Gate but it is a weapon like many others in the game. In this movie the utility of range is really heightened (and in a lot of movies like this, heroes easily evade arrows). Similar to the sword I mentioned above, I think a bow technique that delivers very lethal damage in one shot would be useful. 

Story elements from the movie can also be used for inspiration. I tend not to structure my adventures after that aspect of movies (I just find it hard to pull that off). Instead I use the story elements to build up a kind of data base in my head of possibilities for when things happen. So if the players do rescue a woman from an organization, I can go to the Xiangxiang character and draw on something like the elements found there. Or if a character does have a family member abducted, I may consider the possibility of having that family member adapt to the new situation and become a part of the organization the players themselves may be hunting down (like Chang Wei Fu's sister in the film). I find allowing those kinds of elements to crop up in play organically when it feels appropriate, works best. 

If you want to check out The Bells of Death, it is available to rent on on prime presently. Unfortunately many of these movies are getting harder to find in DVD and Blu-ray but that may also still be an option. 

No comments:

Post a Comment