Riding on its Korean pop-cultural high following the massive success of Squid Game, Netflix brought in the supernatural K-horror series Hellbound, helmed by filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho that has now smashed its predecessors’ records. A nihilistic look on human hypocrisy and impending doom, Hellbound is what nightmares are made of.
If you have watched Train to Busan, you might be well acquainted with Yeon’s prowess of exposition as a director, wherein he knows how to spread fear and panic by making humans face the uncanny. While Train to Busan saw an unknown virus lead to a zombie apocalypse that affected the central father-daughter duo, Hellbound indicates the premise in its name; the characters are on a one-way journey to hell. With a hint of sentimentality, the show is based on the pillars of widespread fear, chaos and helplessness.
What would you do if you knew when you were going to die? The show has a supernatural entity that comes to a person and tells them the exact time and place of their death. As the death knell rings, three massive demonic CGI beasts emerge and pulverise them senseless till they are reduced to ash and bones. The beasts then disappear, and the people around are left recording the same on their phones, nobody daring to step in and help the man. The contrast between actual monsters and monstrous humans who are complicit in each other’s pain and agony is stark but evident, the ignorance and nonchalance palpable.
Adapted from Choi Gyu-Seok’s popular webtoon Songgot (Choi worked alongside Yeon on the script as well), the six-episode series is set in Seoul, where the bleakness of this alternate world is terrifying. Balancing the themes of sin, morality, damnation and redemption, the series is extremely pertinent in the wake of the recent pandemic as it sheds light upon the reaction of a nation in the wake of the unfamiliar and uncanny. The waves of frenzied paranoia and fatalistic chaos that overtakes the city are beyond measure. Society is divided into two- those who are sinners and those who are not. The judgement of God is overpowered by the judgement of men and women who begin taking this distinction way too seriously. This crisis leads to a variety of responses, from failed law enforcement officials who are resigned to their fate to messianic cult leaders who think they can alleviate the pain by justifying how the failure of humanity has incurred the wrath of God and other social media juggernauts who livestream this predicament.
The series serves as a brutal wake-up sign and demands immediate attention to the overall doom that looms large over humanity. Plagued by condemnation, the atmosphere is tense, and Yeon, in his own gutsy manner, does not shy away from tearing down the fake facades of the gospels that the people blindly tend to follow. Yoo Ah-In, who was Yeon’s much-coveted pick for the film and who was last seen in the 2020 zombie horror film #Alive, is the most charismatic figure in the ensemble cast. He is the leader of the New Truth Society and is cold and calculative. He is unsettlingly calm and justifies the act of justice and sin. He is toxic and vile and reminds one of many such figures in modern society. With fleshed out backstories, the ubiquitous sense of despair pervades all six episodes.
Yeon plants in the viewers a sense of horrific disappointment and fear regarding the modern human condition. It is not too difficult to imagine the rich watching someone get pummeled to death or people being silent bystanders to one’s horrific torture by the beasts. Society copes in a variety of ways that are bound to instil a sense of desolation in our hearts as we reflect on the mercilessness of humanity. A drama that demands a lot of focus and attention, Hellbound is perhaps one of the finest South Korean series to date, rightfully defeating Squid Game to take over its position. While the latter is mainly focused on a game that turns humans into vulnerable and passionate beasts to win a whopping sum of money, Hellbound presents an alternate version of the world we live in.
Given our condition, it isn’t too long before we are hounded by the same monsters, punished for our sins, while mute spectators enjoy the show and stream it live.
Starring Yoo Ah-In, Park Jung-min and Won Jin-Ah, among others, Yeon is successful in his scary death-fest that makes the bleakness of our current existence amidst a raging pandemic even more sinister and petrifying.