Netflix's New Hit Show 'Hellbound' Is Your Next Demonic Obsession
This South Korean drama from the director of 'Train to Busan' is an engrossing tale of damnation, sin, and angels that look like gorillas.
In Netflix's new supernatural drama series Hellbound, gods will occasionally take the form of gorilla-like creatures who appear out of nowhere, clobber an unsuspecting individual into a bloody pulp, torch that person's body into a crispy skeleton, and then run off into a mystical portal. A particularly brutal one of these attacks plays out in the opening moments of the first episode, setting a foreboding tone of menace spiked with absurdity. There will be more confrontations like this as the series progresses, like little violent Donkey Kong nightmares dropped into an otherwise largely realistic depiction of daily life in Seoul, South Korea.
Director Yeon Sang-ho, who helmed 2016's zombie breakout Train to Busan and 2018's superhero riff Psychokinesis, has a knack for blending these extreme scenarios, genre-inflected scenes of chaos and mystery and disfigurement, with more grounded, nuanced human elements. After the first visit from these strange animals, who arrive in clouds of gray smoke, Hellbound snaps into procedural mode, following detective Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-june) as he's assigned to work the case. For a second, it feels like you're on stable ground, the guilt-ridden noir territory of Seven or True Detective. But, if you've seen Yeon's prior work, you know another disruption—perhaps a stampede of demon-apes—is not far off.
As the investigator works the case, an even more compelling figure emerges: A charismatic, youthful spiritual leader named Jung Jin-soo, played with the skilful ambiguity by Yoo Ah-in of 2018's Burning and 2019's #Alive. Jung is the figurehead behind The New Truth, a growing sect that believes these bizarre recent incidents are proof that God wants to condemn some to "damnation" for straying from the "righteous" path. The group's impassioned followers are active on social media, specifically a Twitch-like stream hosted by a shouting, makeup-wearing figure who broadcasts revealing information about private citizens in hopes of exposing their sins. They dox in the name of the Lord.
Working with writer Choi Gyu-seok to adapt his own webtoon, available to read on Naver's WebToon platform, Yeon has crafted a series that examines matters of faith in a way that's often similar to shows like The Leftovers or Midnight Mass. The set-up introduces tricky questions right off the bat: Do the people being rampaged by these avenging angels actually "deserve" their fates? Who gets to make that type of judgement? Is that type of vengeful deity one worth blindly worshipping? Hellbound frames these matters through a contemporary lens, drawing out connections between mass hysteria and social media. It's evident the message of The New Truth resonates so strongly in a modern climate largely drained of hope, meaning, and joy.
At the same time, these high-minded discussions are not always treated with solemnity. (Again, don't forget the ape-like angels.) The teachings of The New Truth and the actions of The Arrowhead, a type of radical splinter group that takes to the streets in God's name, are portrayed with an arch satirical edge, one that keeps the show from devolving into a series of lectures or screeds. Though the various investigations and the ticking-time-bomb plots take center stage, with plenty of time for last-minute twists and tearful monologues, Yeon also incorporates footage of media coverage, from livestream shows to news broadcasts, that give the series a more varied visual texture.
Most of all, Hellbound retains a sense of surprise. At a time when many shows struggle to keep you engaged to the end of a pilot, piling on contrivances and reveals to force a sense of momentum, Yeon and Choi begin with a bang, one of the more outlandish openings of a show I've ever seen, and then immediately ground the drama. Yeon accomplished a similar feat with Train to Busan, constantly pushing the tension further and further while still investing time in its characters. It sounds like the logical move—how else do you gin up suspense?—but it's a type of narrative propulsion that's all too rare in many genre stories, which often introduce wild premises and then under-deliver on them. Luckily, Hellbound rewards your patience and faith.