Thanks to the massive ubiquity of the breakout hit series “Squid Game,” one might be tempted to expect the same level of violence and exhilaration in the new six-episode “Hellbound.” After all, the latest k-drama is born out of the imagination of Yeon Sang-ho (the director of “Train to Busan” and the creator of the original “Hellbound” comic), so terror and gore must be the order of the day.
But contrary to expectations, “Hellbound” is not another “Squid Game," though it does remain faithful to the counterculture ethos that runs through all the latest Korean shows wholly produced by Netflix. Here, the short series takes a courageous stab at one of humanity’s most beloved institutions—religion—but insists on setting it in a world that is its own, told at a pace of its own.
Whether "Hellbound" fascinates you or drives you to boredom with its punctuated silences, the way it smashed through to be Netflix's new number 1 show on the day of its release is just further confirmation of what k-drama fans have long known: That the South Korean entertainment machine is a global force to reckon with, and with innovative storytelling like this, it won’t slow down any time soon.
It is the near future, and angels have appeared to random South Korean citizens who foretell the date and time of their deaths. Once the appointed time of death comes, three large smoke monsters arrive to take the unfortunate soul and subject it to an extremely painful and brutal death. The fascination for this terrifying phenomenon drives TV networks and social media to publicize the first “demonstration" of a single mother publicly annihilated by the three monsters. The shocking incident goes viral in a heartbeat and is immediately branded as a clarion call for old-school redemption and confession. A niche cult called “The New Truth” who claims to have foretold the grisly events suddenly skyrockets in popularity, and its inscrutable pastor Jung Jin-su (played by multi-awarded actor Yoo Ah-in) steers public discourse and fear by framing the “demonstrations” as proof that God has had enough of the world’s sinfulness and has taken matters into his own hands.
Much like the old witch burnings and eerily similar to public executions from the era of the Inquisition, the cult rapidly grows into one of the largest churches in the world, and keeps the faithful in line by regularly broadcasting the slaughter of “sinners.” But despite growing fundamentalism and fevered religiosity, skeptics remain, such as the detectives and the lawyers who refuse to join the spreading panic and remain unimpressed by Jung and his new Church. However, their skepticism comes at a high price as they quickly become targets of religious fanatics called the Arrowhead, a group serving as the New Truth’s mercenaries who are hellbent on making the entire world succumb to the doctrine of ultra-goodness and fear.
It seems that nothing can stop the growth and power of the New Truth, until one day, a very unlikely “sinner” is condemned, and whose death could spell disaster for the megachurch and dent its doctrine forever.
The Review (with mild spoilers)
Hellbound is divided into two parts: the first three episodes are a chronicle of how a small cult rises to power, and the second half shows what it can do as a new religious powerhouse bent on attracting even more followers while propagating on a doctrine of fear. After a few years, “sinners” taken by monsters have become more commonplace, so in response, a group of people called the Sodo have created a service to keep the sinners’ deaths a secret so their families can avoid public shame. It is in between these two camps— between those who believe that sin must be publicly punished and showcased to keep believers in line versus those who believe that sin is a private matter—that “Hellbound” examines the many ways we humans deal with our own anger, guilt, shame, and fear.
The entire cast manages to deliver believably on many fronts, especially the inscrutable Yoo Ah-in as the “prophet” Jung Jin-soo, whom director Yeon Sang-ho imagined in the role while writing his comic years ago. Kim Hyun-joo as the attorney who transforms into a vigilante is also quite impressive, as well as Kim Shin-rok’s exhausting portrayal of a woman condemned to death on live television. The gritty and dark setting of Hellbound also helps further the murkiness of the doubt that is central to its narrative — aside from the clean structures and lines of the New Truth Church, everything outside of it is shrouded in grey and shadow. Ironic, considering that we expect a new era of enlightenment to take place in a more beautiful world.
Hellbound is a creative examination of sin and its consequences, of doctrine and belief, and what happens when a singular group is allowed to have overarching and uncontested power over man's conscience. Far from being heavy-handed or overly preachy, Hellbound simply posits the longstanding problem of evil that has long been tormented believers. Throughout the show, David Hume's questions from 1750's "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" reverberate: "Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, is evil?" Through the phenomenon of the brutal smoke monsters, more questions arise: If God existed, why would he allow such painful displays of punishment? Is all this pain and evil actually part of God's plan? Why are some sins more catastrophic than others? Should a group be allowed to have so much power to decide what is good and evil, and if so, how truly free is free will when one decides to live under such a group? Like pounding on old cracks in a wall, Hellbound posits all these classic doubts in a fresh way, culminating in the interrogation of the Catholic concept of original sin.
Throughout six episodes, we witness ordinary sinners trying to make the best of the worst condemnations and how they rationalize their seemingly unfair fates. The desire to make sense of the “demonstrations” and to understand divine justice while sidestepping the possibility of sheer randomness echoes throughout each character. It all culminates in what is perhaps the most noteworthy strength of Hellbound: that it allows mystery and confusion to flourish, and does not take up the conceit to make grand conclusions about sin and the divine. It willingly leaves many threads loose and some questions unanswered, and one hopes they will be either sufficiently addressed in the next season or discussed by the audience over a few beers. The show, for all its theological content, still allows audiences to draw their own reasons and rationalizations about what they believe and why without the facetious proselytizing or guilt-tripping nor the stubborn insistence in either belief or unbelief.
In and of itself, Yeon’s drama sufficiently and successfully fuses old fears with modern storytelling and makes a noteworthy addition to the long list of art that struggles to comprehend the divine. In the last few scenes, a taxi driver tells lawyer Min Hye-jin, “I don't know much about God and I don't even care. But one thing I know for sure is that this world belongs to us... [so] we should settle our own affairs.” It seems that Yeon has settled a part of his doubts in the first season. We can only hope he has even more hellish tales to tell in the next one.
Skip if: Religious themes are not your thing, or if you want something glossier or fluffier.