A tragic, shocking, inexplicable event with hundreds of witnesses. A religious group that attempts to explain and justify it to a stunned public. An extremist element of that group, radicalized and radicalizing that public on the internet – encouraging violence against any that speak against them. Sound familiar? While there are similarities to any number of events in North America and around the world that seem to fit this description, this is the world that creator Yeon Sang-ho (Train To Busan) has crafted in his new Netflix series, Hellbound.
Based on Sang-ho’s webtoon The Hell, which he created with Choi Kyu-seok, Hellbound presents a world where the line between Hell and Earth is paper-thin. If you’ve ‘sinned’ – anything from murder to exploitation to adultery or even petty theft – you may be visited by a demonic figure, warning you that you’ll be damned to Hell within a prescribed period. This may be a matter of days or even longer, but you’ll be left to ponder your transgressions until your time is up, upon which three giant amorphous figures barrel into our reality, brutally beat you, and incinerate your body before high-tailing it back to where they came.
All of this happens to a hapless victim in the pre-credits sequence of the first episode of Hellbound, but the series’ main focus is how South Korea, as a nation, attempts to understand and reconcile these events. In the first three episodes that TIFF presented, we are introduced to police detective and widower Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-june), who is tortured by trauma from his recent past and struggles to raise his teenage daughter (Lee Re) alone. He is assigned to investigate a religious group called the New Truth Society, led by a young man named Jeong Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in, in an excellent performance). Jin-soo insists that he’s not a cult leader (he takes public transit and lives modestly!) but his followers certainly exhibit cult-like behaviour in their attempts to rid the world of sin. Kyung-hoon is joined in this investigation by Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), a lawyer that has been tracking the activities of the New Truth Society and represents one of the damned. Meanwhile, we’re presented with online videos from a radical offshoot of New Truth, led by a rambunctious, day-glo, skull-adorned ‘priest’. This ‘priest’ aggressively singles out and targets anyone that dares speak ill of the New Truth, but also anyone he perceives as a sinner. Interestingly and tellingly, he employs a very Tucker Carlson-esque ‘just asking questions’ incredulity to his threats. The effect on devotees of the New Truth and especially the most extreme among them are the very same. The priest’s targets are hunted down and violently attacked by a gang of youths in similar day-glo paint.
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Hellbound is its ability to weave the personal anxiety and dread that comes with the seemingly-inevitable act of damnation with the societal anxiety of the attacks as a cultural phenomenon. When this latter flavour of anxiety disseminates through the media, it creates an environment where violence and fear can come from anywhere. Your face on any number of screens, identifying you as a ‘sinner’. A passing stranger looks at their phone, then looks at you to try and discern if you’re one of the targets they’ve been implored to act against. As the New Truth’s more extremist element gains traction, not dissimilar to the way that radical elements have taken over political parties in Western politics (take your pick), so does the threat of violence.
The look of the avenging beasts, hulking and fast-moving, and with a frightening capability for destruction, perfectly gets across their menace. Like a trio of stone-carved Brock Lesnars, their frightening speed and efficiency with which they dispatch the damned leaves the audience (and the onlookers within the world of the show) completely stunned. Sang-ho lingers on the victims’ ruined, smoking corpses as well, but a fair bit of the horror here is under the hood.
The three episodes of Hellbound that TIFF presented did exactly what they were meant to do. They perfectly lay out the show’s vision and aesthetic, while introducing all the key players while giving you exactly enough to keep you wanting more. I can’t wait to see how the rest of the series plays out when it comes to Netflix.