K-drama ● Review: Hellbound

English Title: Hellbound

Korean Title: 지옥 [lit. hell]

Director(s): Yeon Sang-ho

Screenwriter(s): Choi Gyu-sok

Studio: Climax Studio Released: 2021

Runtime: 6 episodes, 48m–60m each.

Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Yang Ik-jun, Kim Hyun-joo, Kim Shin-rok, Park Jung-min, Won Jin-ah


My Verdict: A fantasy thriller about a supernatural force apparently taking people to hell with religious extremists taking advantage. Decent production and well-paced storytelling with effective dramatic suspense.


Hellbound

● Based on the webtoon of the same name by director Yeon Sang-ho, the story is set in South Korea, 2022. The world is materially more-or-less like the present. An “angel” can appear to an individual and decree that in so many days or years and at such a time, said individual will be taken to hell. At the indicated time, three monstrous figures materialize near the individual to do just that in a dramatically violent way, leaving behind charred remains before disappearing. These occurrences can be visible to others and can be recorded.


● A group called “New Truth” preaches on these events, claiming all this is a sign from God to urge humanity to repent. New Truth is led by Jung Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in), a softly-spoken guy who, of course, is hiding something. Another group called “Arrowhead” is more vigilante-like, going around beating people up. Both are presented as fanatical extremists who lack compassion.


● The series is obviously a commentary on the dangers of focusing on the “hard” aspects of morality whilst ignoring the “soft”. (Although mostly not shown in the series, the same can be said for those who focus on the “soft” and ignore the “hard”.)


● Personally, I am skeptical about shows that deliberately depict the bad aspects of religion because it is sometimes a thinly veiled way to simplistically paint religion as bad no matter what it is. But I mostly don’t get the sense this is the case. Both New Truth and Arrowhead are so extreme and nonsensical that they cannot be confused for anything but that. If anything, it’s satirical and comical. As the series progress, more is shown on how New Truth runs, including their stupid internal meetings.


● As a thriller, much of the suspense has to do with what these two antagonist groups may do to the protagonists and how the latter resist. Yeon Sang-ho (Train to Busan, Psychokinesis) has a gift for constructing suspenseful scenes without the episode feeling slow.


● At 6 episodes, the series is tightly constructed overall and may be described as having two halves (that are nonetheless connected). The story in both halves examines both the personal as well as the wider implications of religious extremism.


● The first half is about Detective Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-jun) who is tasked with solving and stopping the announced deaths, and Min Hye-jin (Kim Hyun-joo), a lawyer who tries to protect those New Truth may hurt. The focal point is single mother Park Jung-ja (Kim Shin-rok) who has received a decree. New Truth offers her a large sum in order to broadcast her death live to the world to further their message.


● The story in the first half is arguably more personal. Kyung-hoon and his daughter Jin Hee-jung (Lee Re) lost their wife and mother some years ago with the murderer receiving a light sentence. Whilst Kyung-hoon is cynical in his own way, he refrains from taking things into his own hands. He also struggles to keep Hee-jung from being prey to the influence of New Truth. Meanwhile, Hye-jin tries to protect Jung-ja and her two children. And, of course, New Truth and Arrowhead see the lawyer as a serious threat.


● As for the wider implications in the first half, New Truth and Arrowhead are still gaining influence. In the story, they have been around for some time and have a following, but they are not widely accepted. Kyung-hoon and the police, like many others, don’t necessarily accept the events as supernatural. In that regard, it is not only a criticism of those who claim to know how to interpret such events just because it’s supernatural but also those who stubbornly adopt a materialistic view.


● The second half is set four years later when New Truth practically runs society. It follows TV producer Bae Young-jae (Park Jung-min) and his young family. The story does not give up on being personal and so continues to engage the audience. But with New Truth being established as a force, the narrative expands to deal with the resistance against the group.


● Without outright spoiling it, the decree issued in the second half reveals that the “angel” may not necessarily be truthful and pokes a massive hole in New Truth’s stance. New Truth tries to cover it up and the resistance tries to expose it. [Potential Spoiler] It should be noted that the audience is never shown what happens to the soul after the three monsters come to take the person away. All people see is a violent death. Where the soul goes after is not shown. In other words, just because an event is genuinely supernatural does not mean it is God-ordained (even if it is God-permitted), which one of the characters in effect points out.


● But even without this decree, there is the question of the value of the condemned individual’s actions between the decree and their execution. It’s possible the decree has already factored that in but it is unclear either way and New Truth does not even address the question, so any half-thinking viewer would immediately be suspicious of this supernatural force and New Truth.


● If New Truth is wrong about the whole thing, that’s one problem. But then there is the question of the true identity and intention of the “angel”. Since humans without superpowers are the viewpoint characters, not much about the supernatural force is revealed. That is not the focus of the story. Although the above question is posed, it is not answered. It seems, however, to be set up for future seasons. The series does not end on a cliffhanger, there is sufficient closure but not all matters are settled.


● The series is very plot-driven. All the performances are good and the characters are mostly believable so it’s not as if characterizations have been sacrificed, but it is plot-driven.


● The visual effects are sufficient for such a series and the cinematography is fitting. There is a little grit to it and some harder lighting with the darker scenes very well done. Overall, there is no overuse of any particular technique, so there is thankfully no over-stylization. If anything, it could be more stylized.


● Although the supernatural premise is intriguing, New Truth gaining such a hold is somewhat difficult to believe. Whilst I don’t like to question the premise too much, because that is the intrinsic nature of the story, this is something difficult to ignore. Given such events, reactions will be varied. There will always be those who try to take advantage. However, such blatant events speak for themselves. It may be true or false but there is not much room for interpretation either way, so it’s difficult to see the powerful role New Truth takes.


● As mentioned above, I mostly don’t think this series is a thinly veiled attack on religion in general. However, there is an ambiguous comment someone slips in at the end that can be read as promoting a form of indifference. That is, of course, a realistic and understandable reaction but it can be read as if it is the most reasonable option when it shouldn’t.


● Overall, the production is good and the narrative is well-paced. Even if some aspects are not quite believable, it is intriguing with some nicely constructed scenes and effective suspense.

 

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