For avid Korean drama enthusiasts, there seems to be no dearth of television series being churned out on Netflix, available to be lapped up in the span of a binge-watching session.
If the recent success of Squid Game is any indication of how audiences are drawn to the macabre, Hellbound too has gotten a part of the equation right.
Directed by Yeon Sang Ho, who has also been at the helm of the Gong Yoo-starrer Train to Busan, this dark fantasy series welcomes the viewer to a dystopian society, one where a supernatural phenomenon has left people at their wit’s end.
Seemingly random individuals are paid a visit by an unearthly being, warning them of their imminent (and sometimes, not-so-imminent) demise – a trip to hell. When their “time is up”, this alarming incident is then followed by the appearance of three lumbering giants, who wreak havoc to chase down the chosen ones and see through the prophecy, charred corpses and all.
At the core of Hellbound is a glimpse of how history repeats itself; those who frame the narrative wield the power to make the world dance to their tunes. The writing succinctly captures the centuries-old struggles of people to reject the hold of religious extremism and tyranny.
In doing so, it depicts how little agency the common man has to stand by their principles when living in a society shrouded in power play.
Actor Yoo Ah In expertly portrays the character of Jung Jin Soo, the priest who calls on people to recognize this phenomenon as God’s will and live a life of righteousness. While his stoic persona is a far cry from what religious leaders are often depicted to be in pop culture, there’s no denying that his dictums fuel the brutalities of Arrowhead, a cult that punishes those who’ve sinned by going against God’s will.
There’s a violent eccentricity to the leader of the Arrowhead, as he goads the public to not be complicit in supporting sinners. Although his manic screeching and neon-painted appearance is anything but a treat to the senses, the real danger lurks amongst the driving force of the Arrowhead – the vigilantes.
They are delusional teenagers, characteristic of Goldings’ Lord of the Flies, who take up arms against the perceived “sinners”, appearing out of the blue to assault even the most vulnerable.
The show’s cast features some fresh faces and other series regulars, who have made the rounds of the South Korean entertainment industry. Either way, their purpose-driven acting strives to make the viewer that much more invested in the various storylines.
With each episode of the 6-part series chronicling the story of a different character, the show reinforces the notion that ill fortune befalls all, not barring age, gender, social standing or merit.
Granted that such television shows leave little room for character development, what with the number of storylines explored, Hellbound‘s crown jewel comes in the form of actress Kim Hyun Joo bringing to life the character Min Hye Jin, a lawyer who represents the resistance.
Hye Jin’s determination to subvert the efforts of Arrowhead and this religious movement propels the plot forward, keeping you engrossed despite the horrors unfolding on the screen.
This Korean drama is not for the fainthearted. It is gory at times and brandishes the human propensity for evil without any sugarcoating. The cinematography leaves little to the imagination, capturing scenes of terror with as much impassivity as the authorities display towards the victims.
It’s when these killings, termed as demonstrations, transition from evoking fear to being broadcasted by national media and attracting aloof spectators that you begin to feel the dread.
The narrative begets questions of religious extremity. How far are we willing to go to keep our religious beliefs unchallenged? If the state of our society today is any indication, it would appear that indeed even the sky is not a limit. Consequently, the direction of the plot presents a highly dangerous premise.
Despite the underlying messages about bigotry and the collapse of social order, Hellbound‘s reception hasn’t been smooth sailing. Viewers chalk up the ineffectiveness of the show to several factors ranging from poor CGI to numerous plot holes and the lack of exposition.
And to an extent, these criticisms are warranted. The whole season requires some suspension of disbelief as it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For instance, why are the world leaders not taking any action? How is it that apart from a handful of characters, the show doesn’t even address the possibility of a bigger resistance movement against the cult? Surely, entire countries can’t be brainwashed into believing the gospel of this newly-established religious organization.
That said, this Korean drama’s portrait of the vices and virtues of mankind hits the bullseye. Extra points for packaging the message with an absurd fantasy world.
At various instances, you’ll realize that there’s a lot that doesn’t meet the eye. The ending is no different. The last episode, after thrusting armfuls of apprehension at the viewer, wraps up on a promising note – that this was but a sneak peek of the world created by the show makers.
Will there be a second season? That’s yet to be known. But one thing’s certain, the idea brings with it immense potential.