The Korean dark fantasy series strikes the right balance of gore and lore by digging into themes of radicalism and damnation

The series has an explosive start, seeing three giant dark demons pummeling a man to death on the street in full public view, before burning him to a shell of ash and bones. Then the beasts then disappear from sight, as if happy to accomplish their task. This gory scene sets the tone of what is to come: uncontrollable chaos… and hopefully some answers.

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Set in the years 2030 to 2027, Hellbound – originally a webtoon by Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho who also directs the Netflix live-action series – follows the lives of people who are haunted by prophecies of being dragged to hell, having committed sins at some point in their lives. This seems like a fairly simple concept, but leave it to Korean cinema to elevate it to something darker and far more troubling.

While the first scene is pretty much the end result, what follows in the six episodes is a non-linear and complex story of the bleak future of humanity.

That said, otherworldly creatures are rarely seen again, with more focus on the people across the different storylines. At the centre of it, is attorney Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo) who is tasked to represent a woman who has been decreed to damnation by one of the prophecies, so she must understand how the world took such a dark turn and the all-too-human reactions it elicited.

We also meet Jin Kyeong-hoon (Yang Ik-june), a troubled detective investigating the rising number of deaths linked to the prophecies. He has a complicated relationship with his daughter (Jin Hee-jeong), who is drawn into a new-world cult called New Truths Society led by Jeong Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in). Following the demons’ take-down of the man in the street, the popularity of the cult surges as people are desperate for answers.

We also catch some disturbing glimpses of a shout-casting Lee Dong-wook (Kim Do-yoon), the head of a violent group called Arrowhead. An identifiable live-streamer, he seems to be applauding the prophecies, further spiking even more fear in his audiences as he drips in ultra-violet neon paint. Every scene with this guy had me reaching for an energy drink just to keep up.

A continuous descent into darkness

By focussing on different microcosms of society affected by the horrific events of the demon attack, the sense of hopelessness in Hellbound grows continually. It takes clever writing and mindful directing to pull off this complex story and the devilishly imaginative Yeon brings that to Hellbound in droves. He places a society – comfortable in their own truths – in the line of fire of so many antagonistic forces, it actually becomes a morbid delight to watch everything unfold.

If you are looking for dramatic relief or some elements of levity, Hellbound is not the place for it. The continuous descent into darkness is enriched by the stunning visuals and a talented cast of which Yeon makes the most whenever possible. Too many times have we seen filmmakers take this genre to the cleaners with waves of relentless violence but Yeon makes sure every ounce of hellishness is justified by Hellbound’s story.

Yoo pulls off the role of the composed and charismatic leader hauntingly well, becoming the only force of calm in an otherwise hysterical world overrun by religious propaganda and further catalysed by trigger-happy groups such as Arrowhead. His soft utterances of humanity’s straying from God’s path gives the character paradoxically angelic and trusting energy.

Come episode four, the timeline leaps to five years later with the central characters, except for Hye-jin, changing. In an inexplicable turn of events, Bae Young-jae, a producer at a broadcasting house, has to come to terms with the fact that his newborn baby has been decreed to hell. This sets the pace for a second season where I am sure more violence and storylines will bubble up.

It is no wonder Hellbound is on everyone’s watchlist – if they can handle the sheer violence of it all. Hellbound has all the right makings for a horror-slash-dark-fantasy story: the existing troubles of the human world made accountable by a potentially higher power. The fear is real with this show, but it is an addicting sort that will have you shouting at the screen. Don’t mind me, though; after my third watch of season one, I’m avidly waiting for season two.

Hellbound is currently streaming on Netflix

 



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