‘Hellbound’ Is Netflix’s Addictive Korean Horror Series About Demonic Angels and New Age Cults

·6-min read

Thanks to Netflix’s Squid Game and Apple TV+’s Dr. Brain, South Korea has lately become a wellspring of binge-worthy streaming entertainment, and that trend continues with Hellbound, a new Netflix series from Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho that, like his modern zombie classic, focuses on the social unrest that arises in the wake of inexplicable supernatural phenomena. In this instance, that would be the sudden appearance of angels who prophesize people’s impending deaths and eternal damnation, and a trio of demonic goliaths that carry out those executions for all to see. Unsurprisingly, this rocks the citizens of Seoul, what with it seemingly proving the existence of God—as well as confirming that there’s a Hell to which some unfortunate souls inevitable go.

Based on Yeon’s webtoon of the same name, Hellbound (Nov. 19) doesn’t beat around the bush, opening with a café patron patiently awaiting the moment of his doom. When the clock strikes the forecasted hour, seismic tremors shake the Earth, followed by the arrival of three dark, smoky titans intent on murder. As envisioned by Yeon, these creatures resemble diabolical cousins of the Hulk, not only because of their bulging physiques and rumbling gait, but also due to their predilection for bounding about (including on top of cars), swinging victims to and fro by the legs, and performing lots of two-handed Hulk Smash maneuvers. They’re akin to CGI superheroes gone evil, and they make short work of this initial target, whom they decimate to a bloody pulp in midday traffic and incinerate via magical powers, at which point they promptly vanish through an invisible portal.

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In an age of ubiquitous cellphones, this public incident immediately becomes a viral sensation, in the process shining a spotlight on Jung Jin-su (Yoo Ah-in), the leader of a decade-old cult known as the New Truth. Jung preaches that this episode isn’t rare; it’s part of a recurring pattern designed by God, who’s punishing sinners for their missteps. To Jung, it’s proof that God wants people to live according to His precepts, and that He’s grown so frustrated with inequity and disobedience that He’s now decided to scare people into toeing the pious line. As such, it’s divine justice devoid of the failings of man’s fallible and inadequate laws. Jung believes that this idea should be promoted near and far as a means of improving our corrupt world, and his message gains further traction once another woman comes forward to say that she’s received a “decree” from the angel, and is subsequently slaughtered on public television in a demonic “demonstration.”

Jung has an obvious messiah complex but his theory is bolstered by the fact that everyone has witnessed the creatures’ rampages for themselves, not to mention that the angel clearly states that the chosen are headed straight to Satan’s realm. Nonetheless, skeptics remain, including detective Jin Kyung-hun (Yang Ik-june) and lawyer Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), who are troubled not only by Jung’s cult-y behavior but also by the New Truth’s connection to Arrowhead, a more extreme faction that engages in criminal activity. Arrowhead’s leader livestreams his wild sermons while wearing a skull headdress and face paint that glows in blacklight, and his fanatical adherence to New Truth’s doctrine is soon embraced by large swaths of the citizenry, including Jin’s daughter Hee-jung (Lee Re), who’s still grieving the murder of her mother at the hands of a killer who got off with an absurdly light sentence.

[Minor Spoilers Follow]

Jin and Min’s quest to get to the bottom of Jung’s game consumes the first half of Yeon’s six-episode series. Then, having provided sufficient revelations and conclusions for its tale, Hellbound leaps forward in time to a future in which the New Truth has established itself as a social and political powerhouse. Now run by a different Chairman, it wields authority with an iron fist, demanding conformity to its scripture and threatening disbelievers with severe penalties, which are doled out by Arrowhead. It’s in this new world that TV reporter Bae Young-jae (Park Jeong-min) winds up in trouble, courtesy of a shocking development: his newborn child receives an angelic decree, which contradicts the New Truth’s core tenet that sin is something that’s both created by, and thus rectifiable through, human action. If Bae’s baby has been condemned, it suggests that the creatures’ motive isn’t to punish the sinful on God’s orders, but something more mysterious—and, perhaps, random.

Hellbound examines its unholy premise from a variety of angles, investigating the shame, fear, vigilante rage and tyrannical oppression that might arise from this paradigm-shifting turn of events. Theological issues abound, such as the notion that organized religion exerts control through fear, and that its dominion over adherents can only be maintained if God’s will is understood to be rational. Moreover, it contends that allowing one group to interpret and define supernatural phenomena as gospel is to open the door to authoritarianism and, consequently, to destroy the very concept of free will. Heady questions are a constant source of tension in Yeon’s saga, energizing his action and yet never overwhelming the basic suspense derived from his and writer Choi Kyu-sok’s confident plotting.

While Hellbound’s writing is assured, Yeon’s direction is a bit more all over the map. After depicting the creatures’ maiden assassinations during the day, Yeon increasingly stages everything in darkness, be it chases, conversational encounters, or deadly fights. Why he strays from the light and douses everything in murky gloom is hard to fathom; even though he’s striving, in the show’s second half, for a Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula­-style dystopia of run-down apartment buildings and shaggy characters, there’s no benefit to making everything difficult to discern. Consequently, the proceedings’ climactic thrills are undercut by basic visual incoherence, which is too bad considering that Yeon has already demonstrated, in early episodes, his ability to lucidly portray his computer-generated behemoths.

The desire to comprehend God’s plan is shared by everyone in Hellbound, but that knowledge is impossible to attain, making Yeon’s latest a drama about accepting the mysteries of the universe (and His presence and purposes). Even if it stumbles a bit in its back half, it’s a genre effort that shrewdly uses modern horror and superhero-cinema grammar to grapple with age-old questions about our relationship to the divine. And as suggested by a final cliffhanger twist, it appears to still have additional, inventive stories to tell.

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