Not since David Fincher’s Se7en have I seen a work of fiction triggering, in me, thoughts on sin and the various interpretations of it. Netflix’s six-episode fantasy/supernatural series Hellbound is reportedly the next thing big thing after Squid Game, and I’m not the least surprised. It packs enough ideas to stimulate one’s intellect. Hellbound explores faith, free will, divine justice, and tremendous sacrifice in the face of great odds.
The show opens with a terrific hook. The first six minutes seem straight out of the Avengers films, but with a bloody twist. The trinity of terrifying creatures that show up out of thin air is more interested in creating a spectacle out of their victim’s carcass than blowing up vehicles in their way. A quick explanation for this chilling mayhem follows soon enough. We learn that these beings have a duty: to fulfil the prophecies delivered by an ‘angel’ (more like an eerie-looking apparition).
The respective individual is informed that he/she will die and enter hell at a specific time. It could be days, weeks, months, years, or even seconds from the issue of the decree. The beings then arrive to execute it in a brutal display—‘microwaving’ their target after a fair amount of mutilation. You may find yourself sympathising with the hordes of spectators flinching from the haunting visual.
At first, everyone assumes this happens only to sinners—that the creatures are merely doing “God’s work”—but all hell breaks loose when folks who haven’t committed any sins fall prey to the menace. Their charred remains are spotted in multiple places. It’s one of the most bonkers ideas ever put to film, and who better than director Yeon Sang-ho (“Train to Busan”) to bring it to the screen.
Ironically enough, it’s some of the series’ human characters that prove to be scarier than the monsters. Any film/series that takes on a subject of a theological nature is incomplete without the interference of religious fanatics and cult heads, and Hellbound has at least three groups—two of them malicious, the other one benign. But since we are talking about Korean storytelling here, you are kept guessing at every turn as to the true intentions of each member.
The group constantly trying to take advantage of the phenomenon is The New Truth, with their own doctrines and plush offices. Their goal, they say, is to lead everyone on a righteous path by using the monsters as an excuse to further it. They are allied with a nutty vigilante outfit called Arrowhead that carries out a lot of the dirty work in public while colluding with The New Truth.
As he did in his zombie films, Yeon Sang-ho introduces us to a host of endearing characters and doesn’t shy away from putting them through the wringer. It would be best not to get too attached to any of them, but it’s impossible not to because the writing is so good. Among the colourful characters that Hellbound offers are a cop, a television producer, a lawyer, and a crackpot social media influencer—all going through varying degrees of trauma. (One of the revelations is presented through a silent frame in the final episode.)
After following a set of characters in the first half, the show introduces new characters in the second. These are both good and bad, but the creatures are least bothered by the duality. They do not discriminate. We are only required to wait with bated breath to see who the next potential victim will be. Like in Squid Game, whoever ends up as the survivor in the final episode could become the ‘main character’. I say ‘could’ because the show is relentless when it comes to throwing up surprises. My mouth was wide open at that last scene. Korean filmmakers don’t skimp when it comes to imagining harsh scenarios, and Hellbound offers enough of them to devastate and stun you in equal measure.
The series’ most significant character shows up after the third episode. Unlike those believed to be sinless, this character doesn’t require a backstory to confirm his innocence. It’s a no-brainer. It’s his fate the entire second half of Hellbound hinges on, and it’s his arrival that calls the credibility of The New Truth into question. And then comes a whopper of a final twist that promises a second season.
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Park Sang-hoon, Kim Hyun-joo, Park Jeong-min, Won Jin-ah, Yang Ik-june
Streaming on: Netflix
Rating : 4/5