Hellbound is now streaming on Netflix.
What would you do if you knew the exact moment you were destined to die? For a nameless man in the opening scene of Netflix’s latest Korean drama, Hellbound, that question is all too real. He sits at a table in a busy cafe, staring at the clock on his phone, sweat dripping from his panicked face. As the clock hits 1:20 p.m., there is silence. A moment of relief flashes on the man’s face. And then a rumble rips through the streets, and he meets his preordained fate. A trio of demon-like beasts barge through the city to grab him, beat him senseless, then burn him into a shell of ash and bones. It’s a shocking opening to a series that doesn’t let up the tension for six whole episodes, diving into a world where the threat of damnation turns us all into monsters of a different breed.
Yeon Sang-ho, the director of Train to Busan, adapts his own webtoon for a six-part series that has quickly become a social media talking point. It’s hard not to be immediately intrigued by the premise: people begin receiving prophecies from strange creatures that they will soon be dragged to hell for their sins, causing the world to fall into a state of panic and condemnation. That opening scene is a brutal wake-up call of the utmost seriousness of this conceit. There are no winks, nods, or sly jokes to break the tension, no meme-ready moments for Netflix to post on Twitter. Hellbound is 100% serious about its bleak new world. For Yeon, however, the focus is less on the creatures themselves, as foreboding as they may be, than the all-too-human reactions they elicit.
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The first half of the series focuses on a disparate group of people tied together by the chaos of these creatures. Detective Jin Kyeong-hoon (Yang Ik-june) is called upon to investigate the deaths, a task that seems utterly pointless given that human justice seems utterly irrelevant to this case. Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo) is an attorney hired to represent a terrified woman who is doomed to damnation. And then there is Jeong Jin-soo, a quietly charismatic figure who heads the New Truth Society, a cult that sees the emergence of these creatures as a sign that humanity has strayed from God’s path and must change before it’s too late. As played by Yoo Ah-in, probably best known to Westerners for his startling performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Jeong is unnervingly normal, bereft of the fire and brimstone preaching one might expect from a cult leader. Handsome, almost cute, and wholly in control of every moment, he makes it seem completely understandable as to why anyone would be taken by his call for a return to Old Testament-style justice. It’s in those moments where his calm facade falls and we see the real toxicity of his gospel that we, the audience, feel his wrath.
The wrath of God is one thing, but the judgment of man is revealed to be far more insidious. It seemingly takes no time at all for Seoul society to fall into a trap of hysteria, scorn, and religious propaganda. There’s no room for nuance in this new world. You’re either a sinner or you’re not, and regardless of the seriousness of your supposed crimes, you deserve to suffer. This is most tragically conveyed through the fate of one damned sinner, a terrified single mother named Park Jeong-ja, played by Kim Shin-rok in a heart-wrenching performance that’s a series standout.
Yeon spends three episodes achingly developing the roots of this new world, and then there’s a time jump for the second half of the show that reveals the consequences. It’s a nervy move by a series that has several twists that will make you slack-jawed. If Hellbound had ended after Episode 3, it still would have been one of the TV highlights of 2021. Episodes 4-6 show how humanity has changed thanks to the threat of damnation. The sense of despair is still palpable, particularly after we’re introduced to Bae Young-jae (Park Jeong-min), a detective facing the most horrific of news: his newborn baby is bound for hell.
Even with this fantastical setup, Hellbound retains a grounded approach in depicting humanity’s eerily familiar response to the unlikely. Even the loudest and most mouth-frothing of reactions feel rooted in our own all-too-human ways. It doesn’t seem all that outlandish to imagine that society’s wealthy elite would pay top dollar to watch a sobbing woman be murdered by monsters, or that lawyers would negotiate an appropriate price tag for what amounts to a human life. Hellbound doesn’t have a particularly hopeful view of people or our societal coping mechanisms. As you watch these “sinners” be pummelled to ashes while crowds watch on, smartphones in hand and not a single one of them willing to help, the series’ message on the agony of human complicity becomes all too clear. Do people truly fear hell, or do they just crave blood?
Don’t come to Hellbound hoping for comforting answers to the questions it poses, or the ones you’ll have about its ideas. This is a show as merciless as its monsters. Even in its faint moments of hope, the series understands that there’s no guarantee that humans, who seem to default to their worst in such moments of crisis, will actually listen. This kind of ceaseless nihilism may prove too much for some viewers, especially as a viewing choice for dark winter nights in the midst of a pandemic, but Hellbound’s gutsy focus is one well worth investing in. If Netflix chooses to commission a second season (which seems likely given the show’s popularity), then the possibilities for further darkness seem shockingly limitless.