What would you do if you knew the exact moment you were going to die? Or to be more precise, what would you do if you knew the time when you would be dragged to hell? That’s the dark question posed in Hellbound, the first Korean TV drama to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, courtesy of Netflix. People start receiving ghostly warnings of a day when they’ll be dragged to hell, and at the exact second given, creatures appear from nowhere to brutally beat them into ashes. It’s not hard to see why such a development would send a nation into panic, with an enigmatic religious leader (played by Yoo Ah-in from Burning) ready to use the moment to preach for a return to Old Testament-style justice.
The first half of the series Hellbound comes to the festival via its director, Yeon Sang-ho, probably best known to Westerners for his stunning zombie horror Train to Busan. The work is adapted from his own webtoon and will soon be available to read in English for all you nerds who want to compare and contrast it to the adaptation (yes, I would be one of those folks.) The high concept plotting is undeniably gripping but it’s in the sheer bleakness of the execution that makes Hellbound worth your time.
What does it mean to sin? If you were told you were destined to burn in hell for your sins, how would you re-examine your own life? For Jeong Jin-soo, the head of a growing religious sect named the New Truth Society, this is a moment of long-awaited reckoning, for people to be forcefully reminded of God’s will. Min Hey-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), a lawyer who represents an accused ‘sinner’, is cynical about their claims and does not judge such harshly. The police officer investigating the recent spate of mysterious murders, Jin Kyong-hoon (Yang Ik-june) is more confused: it’s his job to uphold the law, albeit man-made ones, and he knows what it’s like to have that system fail on your behalf. Even his own daughter has been taken in by Jung.
The series doesn’t spend too much time focusing on the supernatural part of its setup, which may be fortunate given that the CGI effects on the demons and apparitions are decidedly ropey. The former still prove mightily effective with their sheer brutality when they come to ‘collect’ the sinners, beating them bloody to drive home the misery of their plight. The real horror of Hellbound is in its grim expansion of how South Korea is impacted by the threat of hell. Vengeful weirdos live-stream their extremist rants (complete with pop-up ads) and ask their devotees to essentially dox those who are or were hellbound for proof of their sins. Anyone who expresses even the slightest note of cynicism about the demons is beaten in the street for live entertainment. The unbiased newsrooms turn into blinding propaganda machines in no time flat.
The justice these demons and Jung seemingly offer is one of simple binary understandings of right and wrong. You’re either a sinner or you’re not, and you can’t excuse your choices based on any outside circumstances. Said definitions of sin are never fully explained, a vague decision that feels punishingly deliberate. We see hints of a near-Victorian kind of puritanism rearing its ugly head in the name of God. One damned sinner, a single mother named Park Jeong-ja (played by Kim Shin-rok), is almost painfully normal and certainly not deserving of what is coming for her. Once it is speculated that her sin is having two children out of wedlock, maybe with different fathers, open season is declared on both her life and that of her kids. In a show full of great performances, it may be Kim Shin-rok who stands out, as Park spends her time trembling and teary-eyed, desperately trying to hold it together long enough to secure her kids’ future as her own life threatens to come to an end. It’s through her that we see how sorely lacking in real justice the entire endeavor is. Really, human beings just seem to crave blood.
Yoo Ah-in certainly makes for a quietly striking cult leader. Handsome and charming but not imbued with the fire and brimstone fervor one would expect from such a man in his position, his calculating decision-making feels eerily kind at times. It’s only in those small moments where the scales fall from others’ eyes (although few are willing to truly see.) In one moment, Jeong’s seeming kindness turns toxic as he presses Park on her private life, fully aware that her children can hear his every word.
Hellbound doesn’t hold humanity or faith in particularly strong regard. If God is sending people to hell in this heinous manner, does he want people to fear him more than they love him? Why are people so quick to indulge in their worst hypocrisies in the name of this brutal deity? Yeon Sang-ho has no interest in puncturing the tension with moments of levity (even the token, harried police chief feels more indicative of the growing nationwide panic than a moment for audiences to breathe.) This is a show that starts bleak and sinks further into the darkness. TIFF screened three episodes out of six for critics and that third episode ends on such a moment of despair that I kind of hoped that would be its original ending, if only for the sheer nerviness of its direction. But it does hint at a striking new direction for the remainder of the show, one that I am certainly eager to see.
Hellbound was screened as part of the 2021 TIFF film festival. It is currently available on Netflix in South Korea. An international release date has not yet been announced.
Header Image Source: Netflix/TIFF