The first three episodes of “Hellbound” were screened for this review during the Toronto International Film Festival.
The speed with which misinformation spreads is terrifying. Like a parasite, it latches on to one little thought in your brain—you can choose to ignore it but when it’s amplified by thousands of other voices, it becomes difficult to shut out the noise, leaving that terrible thought to grow and grow until it feels like the absolute truth. In Hellbound, Netflix’s South Korean supernatural series, religious zealotry and the media meet after the viralization of the moments people, dubbed sinners, are dragged to hell by three corporeal smoke monsters. Intense and spellbinding, the show captures the horror of a chaotic society when fanatics obtain social power through fear and manipulation, using religion and God’s will to justify their takeover. The concept of “free will” is at stake, for better or worse.
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho (Train to Busan) and co-written with Choi Kyu-Seok, and based on their own webtoon The Hell, the first three episodes of Hellbound waste no time in establishing a world where demons collect the souls of sinners. In the first few minutes of the series, our three demons of death chase a man down the street, violently ripping him to pieces before lighting him in demonic fire, sending him to hell, and leaving nothing behind but burnt bones. It’s an evocative beginning that immediately brings you on board. In other shows based on the supernatural, these hell demons would only appear to the sinner, but Hellbound subverts expectations—here, everyone can see you suffer for your sins, whatever they may be.
Following these horrific killings, the show shifts into a crime drama when we meet Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-joon), a seasoned detective still reeling from the murder of his wife six years ago. During his investigation, he crosses paths with Chairman Jeong Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in), a charismatic cult leader of a rising new religion called New Truth Society, as well as the lawyer Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo) who represents victims of the New Truth Society’s manipulations. The format of a crime drama quickly dissolves in Episode 3, when the population descends into mass hysteria following evidence that the New Truth Society is above the law.
With wonderful, heart-racing music from Kim Dong-wook, Hellbound expertly paces its descent into chaos, knowing when to slow down on brutal murders and when to present its moral quandaries. Episode two focuses heavily on Jungja Park, a single mother of two who receives a message from an angel that she will die in a few days. While the show’s opening scene proves these angels and demons are punishing bad people, Jungja Park is a break in the pattern.
Chairman Jeong reveals that her “sins” are simply that she’s a single mother of two, with two different fathers for each child. Occasionally interrupting the action to give us insight into how the world is perceiving these events, an energetic internet commentator screams into his live stream theories, conspiracies, and justifications for why these sinners should die. As soon as Park’s “sin” is revealed, this take on gotcha journalism rallies the masses to go after Park, her children, Hye-jin, and Kyung-hoon.
Our two heroes, Kyung-hoon and Hye-jin, are figures of the world as we know it. We know there are unjust laws, and justice rarely prevails. When a seemingly higher power appears because humans are not getting the job down, it’s difficult to argue with that fact.
However, in this new world, free will is taken to task, revealing the ugly and angry side of a vulnerable population and allowing those already with hate inside themselves to thrive. It’s the deconstruction of a society with no way forward except to bend to the laws of free will and the people in the shadows controlling the fallout. The show, at least in the first three episodes, is great at showing how this descent happens, but it also doesn’t necessarily point to other solutions. The old way is dead, and yet we’re still cheering for Kyung-hoon and Hye-jin, if not for the old way to live again then because they’re just people, fighting to survive and doing the best they can.
Hitting at various social themes in such a short amount of time is a difficult task, but Yeon Sang-ho gets the most out of his actors and the story to give us a captivating deconstruction of society.