In a television landscape littered with new series popping up every week, Netflix’s latest hit show Hellbound stands out for its unexpected and taut narrative.
Made by Yeon Sang-ho, most known for his zombie films, the critically-acclaimed Train to Busan (2016) and its sequel Peninsula (2020), Hellbound is based on Sang-ho’s own webtoon series.
Like Squid Games, Hellbound is a Korean television series, deals in graphically violent deaths and is a commentary on society. It’s tempting to slot the two together, but here is where the similarities end. While Squid Games is an intriguing twist on the familiar fight-to-the-death game genre that was popularised by the cult hit Battle Royale, Hellbound is far more terrifying and thought-provoking.
With its candy-coloured uniforms, catchy music, props and caricatured villains, Squid Games is highly meme-able and was clearly made with the internet in mind. Hellbound is far more experimental and unfamiliar in its structure and plot — in a good way.
The Korean television web-series Hellbound deals in graphically violent deaths caused by supernatural phenomenon, but is actually a commentary on society and the role of religion
The premise is quite dark: an eerie floating face appears at random to people denouncing them to hell. They are informed of the exact time and day of their death and, on the day of, three monster/demons emerge from another dimension and brutally beat and then incinerate the victims before returning to the realm they came from.
What Sang-ho is interested in exploring though is not the nature of this terrifying supernatural phenomena, or where it comes from, but how society would react to such an arbitrary and cruel force. His answer is of small comfort, but makes for an engaging and cerebral show.
Hellbound packs a lot in its six episodes and is split in two, with the first half showing the initial stages of the phenomenon while the second half picks up on the story a few years later. Yang Ik-june is Jin Kyeong-hoon, a detective in charge of investigating the first such public murder in Korea by the supernatural creatures. Kyeong-hoon is also grappling with his wife’s murderer being let out of prison early.
But just when you think Hellbound is heading the way of a clichéd murder-mystery show where a detective struggling with his own dark, metaphorical demons saves the day, Sang-ho switches gears.
Soon, Kyeong-hoon’s investigations lead him to Jeong Jin-soo (played brilliantly by Yoo Ah-in), the charismatic leader of the religious cult New Truth Society. Jin-soo insists the deaths have religious overtones and argues that those who die in such a way have sinned. Jin-soo’s calm and passive approach is in sharp contrast to his frenzied followers and the Arrowheads, a vigilante gang, which is an off-shoot of the New Truth Society.
When Park Jeong-ja (Kim Shin-rok), a loving mother of two, receives a condemnation and agrees to have her death recorded and filmed live on television, things take an even darker turn. It is Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), a successful attorney, who is brought in to draw the contract. As television cameras descend on Jeong-ja’s home and the Arrowheads become more brazen (at one point they even attack a police station), Sang-ho shows how easy it is for people to turn on each other and for society to descend into anarchy at the drop of a hat.
As panic sets in and the New Truth Society becomes more dominant, Hye-jin and Kyeong-hoon find themselves unwittingly entangled in a world spiralling out of control.
The first half ends in a cliff-hanger and the second half follows television producer Bae Young-jae (Park Jeong-min), a sceptic, who finds himself caught between the now-authoritarian New Truth Society and Sodo, an underground group challenging the cult’s dominance.
Many years have passed since the first televised condemnation and the world lives in terror of this supernatural phenomenon. By tapping into people’s fears and claiming to know how to avoid being dragged to hell, the New Truth Society rises to become the most powerful institution in the country. While there are references that connect the second half to the first, only one of the characters appears throughout the series.
After investing so much time in well-rounded characters, the sudden change in protagonists and pace can be jarring. But once you get used to it, you can see why Sang-ho opted for this unusual structure.
Hellbound dispenses with clichéd plots and tropes, and it’s refreshing to watch something where you can’t guess where the story will lead. The unconventional twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat and the surprise ending will have you wishing the second season comes very soon.
For all its supernatural elements, Hellbound is more about the politics of religion and what makes us human. Sang-ho makes you realise the thing to fear the most is not some otherworldly monster: it’s ourselves. After all, we’re our own worst enemies but — as the first season’s ending suggests — we’re capable of being our own saviours as well.
Streaming on Netflix, Hellbound has a TV-MA age rating, meaning that it is meant only for mature audiences, typically 18 years of age and older
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, December 19th, 2021