(Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers)
The idea of the existence of heaven and hell has been cinematically tested multiple times. The surreal visual of a person on a death bed summoned by angelic figures, or one’s soul leaving the body, oftentimes metaphorically, amidst warm hazy tones is what the stairway to heaven must look like, I’ve been taught by fiction. The carriers of the highway to hell, however, in Yeon Sang-ho’s Hellbound are three giant smoky Hulk-like monsters. They are preceded by a red-eyed floating face of a supposed angel—rendering a decree—foretelling the exact time of death of a person who has thus been bound for hell.
Netflix’s second South Korean offering in genre-drama makes the comparison binding. Sure, Squid Game and Hellbound both have South Koreans dying in unimaginably terrifying ways, but the latter hosts an inquiry into much darker themes and asks questions that have no answers. Hellbound was first conceived as a two-part animated film before being extended into a webtoon for Korean digital platform Naver. The Train to Busan director’s adaptation, however, has already surpassed Squid Game as the platform's most-watched show.
Hellbound does not waste any time telling us what to expect. It doesn't build up to a final gruesome act. One can sense the tension seconds into the show. Within the first five minutes of the very first episode, we see a person being crushed by the three towering monsters in the heart of Seoul; blood splattering everywhere, finally being incinerated alive. The carcass is left behind with smoke disseminating. The last defenceless scream of pain is imprinted on the carcass.
The show’s excellence lies in making the supernatural the obvious and the believable aspect. There is no scientific reason or logic behind the horrifying occurrences, and we don’t question their actuality in this dystopian model earth even once. The intelligence in the storytelling is the construction of what will happen next while examining the fragility of the human experience. The actual atrocities are in the reliance of the world on religious fanaticism, half-formed cults interpreting unnatural phenomena as their doctrine, the commercialisation of faith and how easily it can be manipulated. The makers do not create the dreadful giant creatures delivering death to be the key antagonists. It is the people capitalising on death. The scenes where these CGI monsters mercilessly slaughter are bloodcurdling but remain the only constant device.
Amidst these grisly happenings in Seoul is the recently formed religious cult, The New Truth, which has heavy echoes of ‘the new normal’ even hinting at the new order of the world. Their leader and chairman Jung Jinsu (played brilliantly by Yoo Ah-in) is nothing like a cult leader. He leads an ordinary life, preaches fervid ideas with an enigmatic numbness. He makes people believe that these divine death sentences come to only those who have sinned and are, so, taken to hell. For the first half of the show, we believe that the basis of the message is a Death Note-esque system of justice, where the creatures are only doing God’s work. Another more radical cult called ‘The Arrowhead’ renders similar ideology of those who sin must die. Rabid followers of the cult, mostly young teenagers, go about lynching those who oppose and question, without a trace of remorse. They smile and laugh as they live-stream the brutality. The frightening familiarity of videos of mob lynching casually being shared on the Internet to instil fear is unsettling.
The live-streams by vigilante cult leaders are the most annoying parts and the show could've done without them. Nevertheless, they serve as a commentary on how technology and the Internet are put to use for furthering blind propaganda.
Hellbound is a meditation on the good and the evil. Convinced that the victims of the wrath are—criminals, cheaters, frauds—sinners, people believe that God is asking them to be more righteous. Very early on, the show subtly questions if one act of sin and violence can be overcome with another. Does virtue have any value if performed out of fear of punishment? Does vengeance wash out the immorality of a misdeed? If there is a God, does it believe that humans are to have no autonomy? Is divine justice only capable of eternal damnation?
In a pivotal episode, one of the characters who receives a decree, Park Jungja (Kim Shin-rok), approaches The New Truth. Her death is made into a contract which she accepts for the sake of her children. At this point, we do not know of the sins Jungja has committed. The contract stated that her demonstration is to be broadcast live for everyone to see. The faceless rich pay to watch the demonstration, literally sitting on a pedestal. It's also interesting to note that none of the victims was among the rich.
The deadly demonstration—one of the most chilling scenes of the show—escalates the insanity phenomenally, bringing in the second half.
The show is beautifully paced. It starts as a criminal investigation and swiftly changes course. Multiple protagonists come and go as the story progresses; no single narrative is followed throughout. There is also a significant time leap, with a completely new set of faces. It is fascinating to predict if and when and how a character will return.
In a crackling second-half, all that we know of the story is changed as it is revealed that a newborn has received the decree. This changes the notion that only sinners are sent to hell as a three-day-old infant couldn’t have done anything wrong. It makes us question the very definition of sin.
In the climactic sequence, as the horrid monsters come for the baby, the parents hold it in an embrace refusing to let go. Finally, they are burned to death as they hug and protect their child. Left behind are their charred bodies, embracing still. A reverberating cry, however, suggests that the baby survived. It hints that the wrath of God and the pronouncement of hell can be defeated, but alas, at the price of sacrifice. It also forces people to see through the “truths” that the cults had created. A final shocking resurrection of the dead further crushes everything we have understood thus far as the “hellbound” return. The ending instils some hope but leaves us asking for more.
The show is a complex and chaotic probe into the duality of faith, of God, and of sin. While making clear that the happenings in the story are supernatural and unearthly, it is still able to question the existence of a God. The final moments lead up a to realisation that most injustice and torment is man-made. The world that the characters inhabit is sometimes comparable to hell; sometimes it is hell.