Written by Choi Kyu-sok
Based on the webtoon by Yeon Sang-ho
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho
Release Date: 19th November 2021
It’s perhaps best not to let Hellbound’s opening sequence fool you. The image of a clearly distraught man running onto a street being chased by three sizeable monsters might hint at something that might turn into a South Korean variant of a kaiju story, but it has bigger concerns to grapple with.
In some ways it might remind you a little of Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, hinting at a type of monster-on-the-loose narrative but which really wants to get grips with a different kind of story, one drenched in relevancy and commentary.
It might not seem like it from the abundance of destruction and violence that greets the audience in its opening scene, but Hellbound wants to get its hands in the gutter in dealing with bigger themes. Religious belief, manipulation of the public through said belief and social stigma brought about by those in charge all get a run-through in Hellbound’s six-episode run.
Anyone expecting a cavalcade of destruction and incident based on those opening moments might be disappointed that Hellbound opts to take a slower, methodical approach, hinting at something more epic around the fringes of the story, but wanting to filter everything through character and social commentary.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have moments of high drama and suspense, because it does. As it moves into its second half, a palpable thriller starts to take hold, but like everything else, it never loses sight of the bigger picture, albeit through personal stakes. The life or death of a newborn becomes a catalyst for a world-altering plot even though the spectre of demons and bodily destruction on a mass scale is also on the cards.
Admittedly some of the CGI can look a little ropey, but then that isn’t the primal concern here driving Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho’s approach to the story. It derives much of its epic nature from portraying the warping and breakdown of society by those in charge who aren’t afraid of manipulating events to suit their own ends and needs. Yes, some of those ideas also get a workout in his zombie masterpiece, but where that film was confined to a small space, here he expands those ideas to a larger setting. He knows how to bring to the fore feelings of dread and uncertainty, not to mention a somewhat horrifying emotional sense of horror, a feeling that might make the series a tougher ask for some parts of the audience.
Anyone that wants more appearances from its three demons and the spectacle that comes with them might be disappointed that Director Yeon’s approach to those sequences doesn’t ever replicate the sense of scale and destruction from those opening moments. Instead, he piles on a sense of physical devastation with just as much emphasis on emotional violence.
However, the bigger picture for Hellbound is in how proof positive of the supernatural and an afterlife which consists of hell affects the population. Being a Korean television series, everything is filtered through South Korea itself, with few mentions of what it might mean for the rest of the world. Such a new belief brings with it a new religious/political order that has dread ramifications for Korean society, and where the knowledge that one is to be sent to hell becomes a social stigma that many would rather avoid.
It’s in using these ideas where Hellbound flies, but when it does opt for bigger action beats such as a glorious one-take fight/chase sequence involving Kim Hyun-joo’s character, there is a palpable sense of adrenaline-fuelled charge to the thrills.
There are very big ideas here that makes it strangely one of a piece almost with some of the works of Stephen King or even Mike Flanagan’s recent Midnight Mass, where religious fervour brought about by societal change and newfound mass belief in the supernatural is more of a hindrance than a good thing, and where only the plucky few that can see through the fakery are up against it in a manner that feels unbeatable.
The series is brilliantly structured, telling its story in a manner one way for its first three episodes before changing tact and approach a little for the second. It’s a natural progression that works wonders, but it also hoodwinks you into thinking you’re watching one person’s story while in fact, you’re watching another. Those first three episodes almost make you believe that we’re being prepped for some sort of ideological and physical altercation between the New Earth cult leader played by Yoo Ah-in and the detective investigating him played by Yang Ik-june.
Yoo Ah-in is obviously a more known international face here, given that he appeared in the wonderful Netflix zombie film #Alive opposite Park Shin-hye last year (well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it), not to mention the critically acclaimed Burning. Hellbound wrongfoots the audience right away here with a cataclysmic game-changing twist halfway through before revealing that the story really belongs to Kim Hyun-joo’s character, a lawyer who gets caught up in an emotive plot in the second half that opens all sorts of moral and ethical dilemmas that will no doubt draw differing responses from the audience.
It’s a wonderful series, dark of heart but which interestingly offers up a semblance of hope in its final moments. That is before a cliffhanging final scene that changes the game yet again and which leaves one hoping that Netflix will renew the series just to see where it might go next.