Starring: Yoo Ah In, Kim Hyun Joo, Park Jung Min
Hellbound is yet another gift from South Korea’s filmmakers to Netflix subscribers. Like Parasite, however, the title Hellbound is misleading. When I first heard about Parasite, I thought it was a sci-fi movie in the tradition of Alien. It turned out to be a funny allegory with a deep message.
As for Hellbound, its title suggests a horror movie, or an explosive action movie with a cast of expendable male Hollywood stars. The promotional material seems to describe a bloody monster movie or a Korean version of Drag Me to Hell. The series is indeed about dragging people to hell, but this isn’t a typical juvenile horror movie. Viewers are in for a lot more.
Conceived as a series with six one-hour episodes, Hellbound starts out like that other classic Asian horror, The Ring. The premise of the Japanese movie had a would-be victim discovering a videotape. If he puts the tape on and watches it, the telephone will ring. The caller informs the victim that his demise will happen in a week.
Hellbound follows that routine, but there’s no videotape or telephone involved. All one has to be is a sinner for that kind of news to reach him. The announcement is more biblical in nature. A demon appears and informs the sinner the exact time and date he is to be literally fetched and whisked to hell. When that time comes, a group of demons will come for him and burn his body to a crisp. It doesn’t matter where he is. He could be in a coffee shop or in broad daylight in the middle of rush-hour traffic. That won’t deter the monsters, which are strangely called “angels” in the show.
Of course, in today’s world of smart phones and instant gratification, the terrifying monsters are captured on film. The entire country (South Korea) is rocked by the footage and almost immediately, a powerful religious cult called The New Truth Society takes advantage of this turn-of events. Using the fear of God, the cult gains influence over the government. It also manages to convince the population that The New Truth Society is the one and only religion. In five years’ time, however, fascism, fanaticism, and violence become the new norm.
When a condemned person is picked up at the appointed time, the horror of the demons/angels is witnessed live by a select audience and streamed all over the country. It’s supposed to discourage everyone from living a life of sin. Of course, many of the condemned refuse to be humiliated by this public display. Hence, the pretty attorney Min Hye-jin (played by Kim Hyun-Joon) takes it upon herself to protect the damned from the cult’s whims. She alone must take on the cult, especially when a major twist happens in the third episode.
One might think a certain person to be a lead protagonist, but his story is concluded after two episodes
The show has so many characters, though they appear in just three episodes at the most. The stories of a few of the condemned are featured. One might think a certain person to be a lead protagonist, but his story is concluded after two episodes. Even the show’s biggest draw, the acclaimed K-superstar Yoo Ah In (Chicago Typewriter, Alive, Secret Affair) appears in just three episodes.
Director Yeon Sang-ho puts his audience on a rollercoaster ride with heartfelt drama, which is seamlessly woven in the epic scenes that never fail to thrill and mesmerize. After all, he did direct Last Train to Busan, which provided so many scares without sacrificing character development. He does the same with Hellbound. To his credit, he has assembled a great cast that viewers can root for or, in the case of the villains, despise with passion.
The writers also deserve credit for creating a scary dystopian world for Hellbound. Others like Stephen King have penned books with similar themes, but Hellbound takes it to the next level. It’s a less horror and more of a cruel black comedy that underscores the faults of religious cults and today’s culture of fake news. Unlike the much-ballyhooed Don’t Look Up, Hellbound doesn’t hard-sell its social message. Its thesis on religious cults is all there for viewers to see. It’s not spelled out. It’s frightening in the way it imparts its argument. Yet it never feels like it’s educating you, because it’s never self-conscious about the subject and its purpose.
Hellbound is also a thriller. Each episode keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, as the attorney fends off the homicidal fanatics of the cult. The fight scenes are expertly staged. They don’t play like an exhibition, but an exciting bout that needs to be won by our heroine lawyer.
Hellbound is also a modern-day biblical epic. The victims’ deaths have become a form of live entertainment, much like the gladiator fights of ancient Rome. I’d like to say more, but that’s tantamount to giving out spoilers to our dear readers.
The writers also never forget about human frailties and the fact that it’s still possible to find one’s self in amusing situations. Thus, just when you thought this dystopian world is too much of a downer, something genuinely funny happens.
But the storyline isn’t perfect. Through the six episodes, it seems that the phenomenon is happening in South Korea only. It’s never really explained whether it’s affecting the entire world. After all, the plot gives us this notion that what is happening is of biblical and apocalyptical proportions. Widening the story’s scope may veer attention away from the main protagonists, but I think it’s important to give a little focus on how the other religious sects would react. Likewise, human rights activists should be screaming bloody hell.
Even the great Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t be bothered by such details. His favorite quip was, ‘It’s only a movie’
But I guess the filmmakers didn’t want to attract controversy by making the situation too real. Even the great Alfred Hitchcock was one who couldn’t be bothered by such details. His favorite quip, after all, was, “It’s only a movie.”
Admittedly, while watching the sixth and final episode, I realized that at this rate, I didn’t think the show would make any revelations about those so-called “angels.” I told myself, if their origin isn’t revealed at the end, I’m giving up on this show. Sitting through every suspense-filled episode was just too much for me to handle. To be deprived of the big reveal could make me not care anymore.
Then suddenly, this first season ends with a cliffhanger that can best be described as the mother of all cliffhangers. So now I’m waiting for the second season. Get on with it, Mr. Director!